Attitudes towards the older worker may be ready for a change.
So the Labour Party, in the person of shadow employment secretary Harriet Harman, has come down firmly in favour of banning age discrimination in the workplace. For the time being, though, employers remain perfectly entitled to bar job applicants on grounds of age, and many of them do. A high proportion of job advertisements (and job specifications) lay down an age range, with people in their 20s being the most marketable group and anyone getting on towards retirement being virtually unemployable. Many European countries already offer some protection against age discrimination, and in the US it has been illegal for 28 years. It may be that a change in attitude towards older workers is long overdue in the UK.
Yet isn't it only to be expected that advancing years should be seen as a handicap in a job-seeker? Isn't a youthful technologist, for example, more likely than his elders to be up with the latest technology? Youth, almost by definition, conveys an energetic image. The Lloyd Group is a London-based executive search and selection consultancy specialising in marketing services - an area which, observes Lloyd's Nick Helsby, 'tends to be dynamic, creative and charged'. 'Our clients feel that an older person will unbalance a young team,' says Helsby. 'There will always be suspicion about someone looking for a job that someone 10 years their junior could do. Given this attitude, age is inevitably a key consideration.' Others argue that most such objections are simply the result of prejudice, that culture-fit is an individual matter and that stereo-types are generally unhelpful. They also challenge the notion that older candidates rule themselves out by their salary expectations: many redundant middle-aged managers these days willingly accept lower salaries than they once enjoyed. In any case, with mid-life career changes increasingly the norm, levels of both pay and seniority should be determined by recent experience relevant to the job, not by age.
In recent years a few companies have attempted to turn what they have seen as neglect of the older employee to their advantage. Tesco introduced its mature entrant programme half-a-dozen years ago, after analysis of the workforce showed that older people were 'good quality and very stable', particularly well suited to customer service. ('The most able to respond to initiatives in this area due to the social skills and values acquired during their life.') Some 5% of Tesco staff are over 55. Dixons has taken a similar view. 'As part of our on-going recruitment policy,' says group personnel director Dick Andrews, the company 'offers a flexible working week and training to those returning to work after bringing up a family because it enables us to get the personal qualities we need.' Numbers affected have been small, however, and the jobs fairly low-grade. Philip Walker, chairman of the Campaign Against Age Discrimination in Employment has dismissed such policies as 'dots on a canvas of trouble'. CAADE, of course, has long been pressing for an Age Discrimination Act, especially as codes of practice - issued by, for example, the Institute of Personnel and Development and Department of Employment - have gone largely unheeded for years. However the Government, although against ageism in principle, remains opposed to legislation (fearing that it might impede job creation) and would prefer to let market forces work this one out. Many business organisations feel the same way.
The Institute of Employment Consultants, says its chief executive Julia Robertson, is encouraging recruiters to base their selection decisions purely on the basis of competence. 'We believe that if employers disregarded historical stereotypes and simply chose the best person for the job, then British business would benefit enormously.' The Institute of Personnel and Development also favours self-regulation. Nevertheless the IPD believes that 'Employment decisions based on age are never justifiable, are based on fallible suppositions and lead to ineffective use of human resources.' Nevertheless there are a lot of other employers who would be quite happy to see a legislative solution. A survey by the sociology department at Sheffield University suggests that a majority of companies would welcome legislation to put all employees on an equal footing, regardless of sex, race - or age.