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We have seen for centuries how women have been discriminated against because when they become available to have children, employers have seen them as ‘at risk of pregnancy’.  When they take time out to bring up their children, their future careers are constrained.  Employers have been reluctant to hire women of childbearing age because the risk that they will take maternity leave.  Bit by bit that prejudice has been limited and the impact reduced.   However, business leaders continue to rail against what they see as the cynical ploys of women who apply for jobs with every intention of becoming pregnant as soon as possible and taking advantage of maternity benefits. 

Discrimination against carers 

I suggest there is a new discrimination that’s emerging that is more strongly related to ageism, but again, disproportionately falls upon women.  More and more people are having responsibilities for elderly relatives.  In many families the assumption is that the woman will take responsibility for it, even if the elderly relative is an in-law rather than a blood relative.  This is the same assumption that weighs on women that become the primary carers for children. 

The temptation is to start to see older women as a risk because they may step out of their roles to become a carer.   Alternatively, they may require flexible working to support their caring needs.  Now we are at risk of double prejudice: ageism and sexism based on an expectation that older women may become carers. 

Increasingly, people in their sixties are caring for people in their eighties and their nineties.  For some of us, those caring responsibilities come even earlier in our mid-fifty’s as we’re caring for people in their mid-sixties and early seventies.    

As we start to see an increasing number of people post fifty who step out of the employment market, I’m wondering how many of those people have chosen not to be available for work because they’re taking on caring responsibilities and they are finding that employers are very reluctant to offer them flexible working.   

Caring for the elderly v. children 

The challenge with being a carer is different from having responsibility for children.  You haven’t got the predictability of school terms or school hours.  Yes, you will have to cover school absence but generally you can plan a schedule.  On the other hand, your caring responsibilities for frail, chronically sick, disabled or those with emerging dementia, are much less predictable.  An unexpected fall can massively change the level support required.  The patchwork of services available from third party providers are difficult to rely on and require active management.  Deteriorating health can require multiple hospital visits and the ever-present threat of emergency admission.  

When my father broke his hip after a fall, we had to move in with him while he recovered.  A subsequent fall broke his shoulder.  Again, we needed to stay.  Fortunately, I could work remotely and had enormous work flexibility but if I had continued in my demanding role as a partner in a global professional services firm, all the responsibilities would have passed to my wife. 

Recognition of the issue 

I’ve not yet seen any reports in employment tribunals where older women have been discriminated against on the basis that they might have caring responsibilities, but I can absolutely believe this is becoming a more and more significant issue.  As government encourages flexible working, new employment legislation will require employers to consider flexible working from the first date of employment.  I can see that this is going to come up at interviews and may well lead to discrimination against older people because employers may legitimately start having that conversation about flexible working at interviews and then start to look at what the need is for flexible working and start to look at those caring responsibilities as a reason not to engage people.   Rights to flexible working are increasingly demanded.  In the medium term, particularly if there is a change of government in 2024, flexible working will probably become a right rather than an opportunity for employee/employer negotiation.   

A conspiracy of silence? 

So, if you thought things were stacked against you as a woman of childbearing age, think about the implications of being seen as a woman of elderly care supporting age.  Surprisingly, trade unions have been silent about this.  The Commission for Equality and Human rights have been silent about this.  The Centre for Ageing Better is beginning to recognise the importance of carers and starting to realise that, without the right support, that critical role of unpaid carers within our social mix will start to disintegrate.   

Your voice 

I would really like to understand from the readers of this newsletter whether they have noticed either this is on the agenda for HR professionals, or whether it’s on the agenda for people doing recruitment, or employees and prospective employees are starting to be subjected to be discrimination on this basis.    

Ageism is subtle.  Ageism is pervasive.  Perhaps this is the next frontier.  Be alert.  Make choices that put you back in control.  Recognise only a long running campaign will protect social justice for older people.  


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.