Discuss how and why Age Discrimination Operates in the Workplace

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22 November 2015

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Discuss how and why Age Discrimination Operates in the Workplace


Discuss how and why Age Discrimination Operates in the Workplace

       In the past few decades, science has made great advancements in medicine, nutrition and other human sciences. These advancements have made it possible for people to be treated for various diseases and ailments that would have otherwise shortened their productive lifespan. People are generally living longer than compared to a few decades ago and this has meant that there are more people in the general working population that are above the age of 50 (UK Census Bureau, 2012) With these higher numbers and wide age gap between people in the same workplaces there has arisen the problem of ageism or age discrimination. Age discrimination is defined as the unfair treatment of an individual as a result of their age. It usually happens in workplaces as this is the area in many societies where people of different age groups and with wide age gaps are likely to interact. (Age UK, 2011) Age discrimination was defined under the UK Age discrimination Regulations act enacted by the UK parliament in 2006 and later on elaborated in the Equality Act of 2010. These laws were put in place to protect employees from being unfairly treated or discriminated on any grounds including age. (The Equality Act 2010 (Commencement No. 9) Order 2012, 2012) It forbids employers, potential employers credit unions and any other individual or business to refuse services or discriminate against a person on the basis of their

  • age
  • being or becoming a transsexual person
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or having a child
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

       Age discrimination can be directed against individuals of any age, although it is mostly directed at older people. It can be operated at various levels from interpersonal to the workplace, and is equated to racism or sexism and is equally as damaging. (Age UK, 2011) This is the reason why these legislations were passed as well as similar legislations in other countries across Europe and the world in general.

       In the UK law however, there is a specific provision for an employer to deny a person employment or terminate their contract. In these cases, the employer has to prove that the action is objectively justifiable: meaning that there are valid and concrete reasons behind the use of age as a factor for employment, promotions or other work related benefits. These reasons must be fair and be able to stand up to a tribunal (UK government: Age discrimination to be outlawed, 2005).

       The problem of age discrimination in the UK is worrying as the society itself is unwilling to change. A study conducted by the University of Kent with Age UK showed that although more people in the UK and Europe were becoming aware of age discrimination as a result of legislation and government and NGO campaigns, there was still a problem in their individual attitudes towards the elderly, especially n the workplace. The study, named the European Social Survey, showed that 49.7% of people in the UK would rather work under a qualified 30-year-old boss as opposed to a similarly qualified 70-year-old boss. This together with responses that show that the average age a person is considered “old” is 59, while other countries such as Greece considered old age to begin at 68 years. (University of Kent age survey 2012)


       According to the 2011 national census, the UK and Wales population had grown to 56.1 million: the highest it has ever been. In all the regions except London, 16.6 to 20 percent of the population was made up of people aged 65 and above (Macnicol, 2005). These people are increasingly finding themselves in situations where their age is proving to be a hindrance to their social and professional lives. Age discrimination in the workplace is the most predominant form of ageism with the numbers of claims being brought to tribunals increasing steadily since their inception. In 2008/9 there were3800 claims brought forward, this number rose to 5200 in 2009/10 and to 6800 in 2010/11 (Ministry Of Justice, 2011) The upward trend is the opposite of what is being seen for other types of discrimination cases, with the number of unfair dismissal, breach of contract and equal pay all seeing drops in their thousands.

       A report By Age Watch group paints an even grimmer picture of the situation. This report shows that old people in the UK are increasingly being viewed as liabilities and their social standing and image in society, both formal and casual is diminishing. Sampling some of the responses from this report such as the question as to whether ‘Employers don’t like having older people on their workforce as it spoils their image’ shows that in every age group sampled, more than 40% agreed with this statement with only the 16-24 age bracket going below this mark slightly at 39%. The table below shows the graphical representation of the results for this question. The percentage number of people who reported being treated unfairly in the year prior to collection of data shows that ageism is the highest occurring reported case of unfair treatment.

       29% of respondents said that they had reported an instance of someone discriminating against them or someone related on basis of age. This has surpassed even gender based discrimination which is at 24%. (Age Concern England, 2008).

Age of Discrimination Debate

       Proponents claim that the elderly are just as capable as the young. So age is not an indicator of inferior ability therefore treating an individual on the basis of their age in unfair and discriminatory. Furthermore, this is inconsistent with principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination which are centered on the notion of an individual rights. Therefore, it is important for employers to make their employment decisions based on the suitability to perform their job –not age. Age by itself should not the single determinant (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998). However, critics argue that the theory of hiring should be based on one’s ability. In reality certain abilities are hard to determine consequently employer uses age as the proxy. In sports age an indicator of one ability to work with his team mates or extracurricular leadership as a management potential (Anonymous, 2008). Even through, not full proof age gives a clear bearing on other key qualities such as concentration, energy and cognitive abilities. This could be particularly useful for a sales persons who need to have energy and vitality, in addition it’s important for medical practitioner to have high level of fitness and concentration in performing their duties (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998).

       Discriminatory practices in recruitment and promotion causes harm to the economy. Age discrimination reduces the overall productivity due to the fact it prevents job advancement opportunities through ineffectively matching workers talent and the job descriptions. According to study by the Cabinet Office in the UK revealed that lower employment among older people reduce the overall GDP by £16 billion per annum (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998). Therefore, a higher contribution rates among the elderly leads to better job matching, increased employment rates and enhanced competition among worker this will turn stimulate the labor market leading to increased productivity. The common belief that the economy has few and limited number of jobs, and if older worker remain the labor market they will negate job opportunities to the younger people or reduce the wages is a fallacy. Studies show that wages are unlikely to drop with projected shortages, such as in health sector and teaching. But opponents of age claim that laws against age discrimination may simply result to the old people working for higher wages, rather than older people working. Researcher on age discrimination laws in the US showed that the increase in employment rates of older employees is due to staying in their jobs for longer rather than older people working. In addition, an increase in the number of older worker in the short-term will result in market pressures to reduce wages, therefore other existing elderly workers may suffer with wage drop (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998).

       Supporters argue that having few older worker also increases the amount the government needs to spend on benefits, pensions and decreases the tax base (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998). This strain on the public resources is especially critical in developed countries with an increasing number of their population ageing. This increases the projected dependency ratio and pay-as-you-go nature of pension schemes. However, it could be argued that the so called ‘benefits’ for government budget is in fact just a transfer. Governments spend less on health and other benefits and employer is the one who actually pays for them. Therefore, the cost is not strain to the government but the employer. Simply it a transfer from the government to the employers (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998).

       With limited age discrimination and a mandatory retirement age, employer suffer from a lower turnover and lower recruitment costs and effort. This so because employees work for longer periods than they would otherwise have done before. It is believed that according to DTI estimates that the benefit to businesses could amount to £39m in the first year. On the other hand, discrimination discourages potential elderly talent from applying to the position (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998). Therefore from onset employer has small pool of workers to choose from. The claim that anti-discrimination laws are good for the employer is fallacy and makes no economical or common sense. If hiring and promoting elder worker serve the best interest for the firm therefore why do we need such laws? In actual fact without a mandatory retirement age, employers are obliged to continue to paying pensions more than they expected increasing the overall operating cost by incurring higher insurance premiums and expensive healthcare benefits. In addition, firms have limited number of senior positions. In case where such position are all taken by elderly workers firm would be in difficult position to hire or retain younger workers leading to high turnover among younger staff. Firms with no retirement age have no idea when people should leave creating uncertainty in human resource and bottlenecks (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998).

       Ageism is the most common of discrimination in the workplace today. However, through proper legislation it can help correct this prejudice with other policies that promote equal rights and educate the employers and employees on their rights and obligations and rights. Therefore, by protecting such a group that is disadvantage, we help raise equality in the society (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998). However, anti-discrimination laws have been existent in Australia, Canada and the US but there are no evidence that there has been a significant shift in attitude of the employer toward the elderly workers. In fact, there is strong evidence showing that employers are less likely to employ older worker and younger co-workers become resentful if mandatory retirement ages are not imposed (Age-discrimination debate has two sides, 1998).


       Age discrimination in the work place may be casual or systematic and the issues came to the fore front in the late 1960s. it could be perpetuate against seniors or perpetuated based on sexism or racism. However, it is best defined or seen through three aspects. Prejudicial attitudes towards the older people, old age or the aging process itself through various discriminating practices which towards older people as well as some institutional aspects as well as policies that encourage some form of stereo types against the older people.

       Age discrimination in the work place may manifest in different but subtle forms in the work environment and can be established, promoted or even allowed and encouraged to persist by the workplace management and authority. Henceforth, it is possible to heave in the work place inequality that has been created due to age discrimination

       However, providing a free discrimination workplace raises a lot of challenges for the employer and employee. Therefore, it may require:

  • Change of attitude, culture and to an extreme confront unacceptable practices that discriminate the elderly. Such practices may range from harassment and possible bullying of the older workers which undermine and excludes them firm.
  • Organizational rethinking to accommodate the need of this special group such as the older people
  • Develop polices to protect workers from all forms of discrimination at the work place
  • Ensure that discrimination polices are enforced and staff are trained on those polices and complaints are dealt with effectively.

       The United Kingdom has recently enacted the UK Employment Equality (Age) Regulations in 2006 developed a number of resources and practical information for the employer to ensure that elderly are not discriminated and harassed therefore, promote good business practices. It also protects and safe guards the elderly worker against workplace discrimination on grounds of age.


Age Concern England. (2008). How Ageist is Britain. London: Age Concern.

Age-discrimination debate has two sides. (1998). Orange County Business Journal, 21(16), 35. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/211120427?accountid=11243Anonymous   (2008).  Letters. The Age (Melbourne, Vic.).  p. 14

Macnicol, J. (2005). The age discrimination debate in britain: From the 1930s to the present. Social Policy and Society, 4(3), 295-302. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/221167966?accountid=11243Ministry Of Justice. (2011). Annual Tribunals Statistics, 2010-11. London: Ministry of Justice.

Moore, S. (2009). No matter what I did I would still end up in the same position’: age as a factor defining older women’s experience of labour market participation. Work, Employment & Society, 655-671.

Morgan, G. (2012). Achieving age equality in Welsh health and social care services. Generations Review, published online.

Porcellato, L. (2010). Giving older workers a voice: constraints on the employment of older people in the North West of England. Work, Employment & Society, 85- 103.Robertson, G. (2012). Positive ageing: from the political to the personal. Working with Older People , 149-153.

UK government: Age discrimination to be outlawed. (2005, Jul 14). M2 Presswire. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/445751217?accountid=11243

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