Is Ageism a Myth?

A portfolio executive working and drinking a cup of tea

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Women & Equalities Committee Report

It is very interesting to see the ‘Older People and employment: Women and Equalities Committee report’ developed by the House of Parliament Select Committee published almost a year ago, and the response to it. There were some very particular findings that I think are strong indicators that ageism in employment is not a myth. In fact, in their summary, published on the 17th July, their first statement is:

“Ageism remains a significant problem within British society and is affecting the ability of people to continue working into later life, despite long-standing laws against age discrimination. Discrimination in recruitment is a significant problem and the public sector is not leading the way in the retention of older workers when it should be. (Paragraph 28)”.

First point. This committee found that it is a significant problem and in commenting on this the Equality and Human Rights Commission who should be taking the lead on this said:

“The Commission’s findings have indicated that older workers face bias in recruitment and may need flexible working conditions … We have also sought to tackle unconscious bias in recruitment by taking action against discriminatory adverts that request characteristics or terms that are associated with a particular age group. The Commission’s findings have indicated that older work”

Equality and Human Rights Commission

So, the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognise this as a problem, but interestingly when you look at the Equality and Human Rights Commission website very little is about ageism. There is a lot about racism, sexual orientation and gender, but very little about ageism. In fact, the parliamentary committee went on to say,

“given its ambition to become a ‘muscular regulator’ we are surprised that it is not taking more action to remedy this. We recommend that the Commission develop a clear plan to tackle age discrimination in employment”

They then went on to include a whole list of things that the plan should include. There is no indication since that report, that I can see on the internet, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has developed that plan, or at least they have not published it on their website.

How do You Respond to Ageism?

So, ageism is not a myth.  We can, as people coming into the second half of our careers, either accept that there is ageism, or seek to campaign against it or we can seek to adapt in the face of it.  For many of us the ageism is subtle and, as in racism in the past, that subtle ageism is difficult to specifically identify and to fight.  When we come across it, we are more likely just to move on rather than to make a fuss.   I remember going for an interview at a pub where I was told I was ‘too old’.  This, I think, is reflected in the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission gets very few complaints about ageism that they then take forward.  Perhaps as older people, we need to be actively fighting this discrimination, whether direct or indirect, in the same way as generations before us have fought for equality around gender, race and sexual orientation.  However, I do not see a large movement of employed professionals fighting this corner in the way that people have done in the past around gender equality or racism.  So, what is your response going to be to ageism?  Ignore, challenge or avoid?

Can’t Ignore

In my view you cannot ignore it.  It is a reality – this is not a myth.  So, the simple choice for you is ‘challenge’ or ‘avoid’.  Maybe we actually have to do both.  Maybe, when we encounter it, we have to challenge it.  But also, we need to find strategies to continue to do the work that we want to do despite it.  I believe we choose work opportunities that do not depend on the recruitment industry.  What I see, again and again, is that CEOs and senior leaders, value the experience and knowledge and skills of older people when they are coming to them as independent consultants, Non-Executive Directors or as portfolio executives.  As a self-employed person, somehow, you have an opportunity to pitch on the value that you bring rather than just on the CV that you have. 

Challenge & Avoid

So, my encouragement to all of those who are facing ageism is take more control over your own destiny by moving into a situation where you are pitching your value proposition rather than pitching your CV.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.