Is Ageism Real in Employment?

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Sexism and racism provide a continuing challenge to the attitudes and culture of organisations and society at large, and have now been adopted under a broader agenda of diversity and inclusion.   

UK, European and international human rights law recognises a number of ‘protected characteristics’ including gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, disability and age.  In the UK the Equality and Human Rights Commission has responsibility for encouraging equality and diversity, eliminating unlawful discrimination, and protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone in Britain.

Is the Equalities and Human Rights Commission ageist?

A cursory review of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission website could readily lead you to believe that the Commission itself is ageist.  

The most recent enquiry or investigation by the Commission into a uniquely age-related issue was commissioned more than 10 years ago in 2010!  

In their most recent attitude survey (Oct-18) age-related prejudice was seen as the least serious issue in Britain.  The same survey showed that 26% of British adults experienced prejudice based upon age, a higher proportion than any other characteristic (c.f. sexual orientation at 7%).  A huge disconnect between perception and reality.

Ageism in Recruitment

There are many coded phrases that recruiters use in adverts, job and person specifications that directly discriminate against younger people.  Requiring a specific number of years of experience for example.  Similarly coded phrases that are irrelevant to the job requirement represent conscious or unconscious bias against older people.  Examples include energetic, fresh thinking, suitably qualified, recent experience.

But recruiters and hiring managers have no fear of explicit age discrimination even though it is illegal.  On applying for a job serving in a pub, I was told explicitly ‘You are too old’ when aged 48.  Several of my clients applying for non-executive roles have been told by executive search agencies that they are excluded from consideration because they are ‘pale, stale and male’ – for stale read ‘too old.’  I advised a very experienced mainframe systems manager applying for a job supporting a legacy technology environment who was told ‘you are overqualified’ – for overqualified read ‘too old.’

Research shows that recruitment managers actively discriminate against older people for management positions.  Yet employers value people with the experience.  The statistics show that people who are older, get up to speed faster in the new roles, have less absence than the younger people and are more valued by their employers when they’re in post. 

Ageism at Promotion

Although there is no statutory retirement age, the talent management function will consider the age of individuals when looking at who to promote.  They will assess what the candidate’s current age is, with a view to the expected number of years to retirement.  This is pure prejudice based upon age and flies in the face of the facts: the evidence is that younger people are more likely to change employers than older people and so the potential date of retirement is unlikely to be the determining factor in the length of time a candidate stays.

Many organisations still have an ‘up or out’ policy which is also discrimination based on time served (a proxy for age).  This means that individuals who do not achieve promotion after a set number of years in a role, are actively encouraged to resign and have opportunities for training and diversification of skills denied them.

Many organisations have benefits that accrue explicitly or implicitly based on years of tenure.  In schools this has a very pernicious effect causing forced early retirement of experienced teachers.  It works like this:  headteachers reward teachers with additional non-teaching responsibilities so they can provide them with grade related pay rises.  Over time the most expensive teachers are the most experienced teachers who do the least teaching.  When budgets are under pressure and teacher-pupil ratios under threat these experienced (and older) teachers are forced out.

Ageism during Restructuring

The decades of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been marked by successive corporate restructuring, outsourcing, offshoring and redundancies.  In the past, people were forced out of a business based on last-in, first-out: illegal ageist discrimination based on tenure.  Now the pressure is on de-layering: removing the experienced middle and senior managers who are typically aged 45 plus.  As the remaining younger people are promoted, they are reluctant to hire people older, more experience and better than them into roles that report to them.  A group of people who primarily belong to a certain age group are being implicitly excluded from employment opportunities – effectively discrimination based on age.

Ageism is Endemic and Institutionalised

Age is the primary protected characteristic where government policy explicitly discriminates on the basis of the characteristic:  minimum wage rates are age related, access to university grants is age related (mature students don’t have eligibility determined by parental income), benefits are age related (fuel allowance, TV licence exemption), the tax system recognises age: pension income is treated differently than earned income, access to particular healthcare interventions can be determined by age without regard to health condition.  No other protected characteristic except disability is actively discriminated in government policy and endorsed by discriminatory legislation which would be unacceptable for any other protected characteristic.


Maybe you, like 54% of the UK population perceive age discrimination as not at all serious or slightly serious.  

Or perhaps you are part of the 46% of the UK population who perceive it as somewhat, very or extremely serious.  

Remember that combined, the net negative feelings to those at age extremes (under 30 6% or over 70 4%) at 10%, is higher than for women (2%), physically disabled (3%), black (5%), men (6%) and gay, lesbian, bisexual (9%).

Ageism is real, under protected and institutional.  What are you going to do it about it?


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.