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Ageism is not the problem

Britain needs proper employment opportunities for older people, not a government consultation on 'age discrimination'.

Phil Mullan

Topics Politics

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It was not surprising that last week’s UK government consultation document on combating age discrimination at work (1) was greeted with so much cynicism. It is a bit rich when a government that has treated older people so badly seeks to portray itself as the best friend of the elderly.

New Labour has been consistently mean-spirited with the interests of the old. From supporting the previous Tory government’s equalisation of the state pension age for men and women at 65 (from 2020) – the cheapest of three options considered – New Labour went on to abandon its previous commitment to restore the indexation of the basic state pension with average earnings increases. It has also pared down the costs to the Exchequer of providing health services and long-term care for the elderly, causing greater financial hardship for tens of thousands of people.

This government has helped to compound a peculiar paradox of our times: that as we grow old in a healthier and better way than ever before, we are getting more negative about the ageing process. At root, society’s increased uncertainties and anxieties about the future are fuelling this negativity about ageing. Official concerns about the growing burden of ageing populations, as birth rates languish at low levels and longevity increases, interact with our personal worries about growing old in an atomised and seemingly uncaring world.

Reinforcing this, many fashionable social and educational policies denigrate the qualities traditionally associated with old age, such as experience, maturity and wisdom. New Labour’s worshipping at the temple of youth has encouraged a dismissive and intolerant view of older people. According to official youth mantra, creativity, flexibility and innovation are assumed to be alien to older people, especially when at work.

With such a record, the government has only itself to blame for the cynical reaction to its anti-ageism consultation paper. Many see it as just another cost-cutting exercise forcing us all to work for longer. The paper is interpreted as encouraging employers to consider postponing the full payment of occupational pensions to age 70, to ease the well-publicised pressures on private pension funding, and so help the government pursue its agenda of shifting responsibility for income in old age from the state to the individual. Maybe, some speculate, this consultation process is softening us up for an increase in the state pension age.

But this reaction only adds to the existing panic about old age – and echoes many of the irrational and exaggerated assumptions about an unaffordable ‘crisis’ of ageing. The claim that people will be forced to ‘work until they drop’ has a fatalist air of inevitability about it, and risks joining the other misleading myths about ageing. In fact, there are more important issues at stake here that the government’s announcement does either nothing to address or even makes worse.

Because of the strength of negative stereotypes about older people, society today encourages people to switch off too early. This makes people into dependents well before they might become so as a result of any physiological decline. This trend has become so entrenched that we require a fundamental reordering of work, as well as of education and the family, in order to break down the artificial divide between older people and the rest of ‘normal’ adult society. In particular, the process of retirement from work needs to become gradual and voluntary, not the sudden and compulsory act that it is so often today.

Laws banning age discrimination are no solution to this problem. In fact, by encouraging the idea that older workers need special treatment, they can reinforce the sense of age-determined differences between us. By raising the prospect of a ‘default’ retirement age of 70, the government is doing no more than moving this symbolic age divide up by a few years.

It is also likely that in today’s low trust climate, age discrimination legislation will only fuel ever-growing demands for compensation at employment tribunal claims. Not only will this further poison workplace relations, but by making age a focus for claims, especially for ‘harassment’, it is also more likely to consolidate any age-related prejudices than dispel them.

Another pressing and widespread issue is that many people are being denied the opportunity to continue working when they are still capable and want to. Some people do choose early retirement, but many more are forced into too early retirement. Early retirement is more often a euphemism for redundancy, rather than a sign of economic prosperity and a voluntary preference of leisure over employment. The geography of early withdrawal from work emphasises this point, as employment rates for older men are much higher in the most prosperous regions like the South East compared to the more economically depressed areas such as South Wales or the North East.

Ageism is not the problem here. It seems that if jobs were available people would want to stay in employment longer and would be able to do so. Age Concern estimates that there are two million people in Britain over the age of 50 who would prefer to work if they could find jobs. Sufficient employment opportunities is what we need, not legislation outlawing managers with ‘ageist’ attitudes.

Our response to this consultation process should be unequivocal. Ageing populations do not represent a burden for society. Any developed society with a modest record of sustained productivity growth, of say 1.5 percent or 2 percent a year, can easily afford the sort of demographic projections anticipated in Britain and the rest of western Europe, and do so in generous fashion to those retired and to those dependents in need of state assistance.

The government’s sole responsibility in this issue is to remove existing legislative and regulatory barriers to later working. These include: mandatory retirement ages, providing full employment rights to older workers, and facilitating the deferment of pensions (both public and private) on an actuarially fair basis (ie, neither you nor your estate loses out by delaying the taking of pensions to a later date).

Chronological age tells us nothing about people’s outlook and abilities, either at work or in wider life. Employers and employees should work together, without state interference, to establish a process for allowing phased retirement, where required, driven by an objective assessment of the worker’s ability to work. They should also work together to remove existing age-related restrictions to training.

Phil Mullan is the author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not a Social Problem, IB Tauris, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) See the UK government consultation document Equality and Diversity: age matters

Read on:

A mature response to ageing, by Phil Mullan

spiked-proposals: Pensioners, by Phil Mullan

Going for grey, by Phil Mullan

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Topics Politics

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