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Office worker

‘No experience required’ - ageism in the job market

Our everyday phrases and thought processes are often unintentionally ageist. What effect does this have in the workplace?

Our Senior Programme Manager for Fulfilling Work, Patrick Thomson, says we need more scrutiny of the ageist stereotypes we all hold if we are to address age discrimination in the job market.

“How we think about the job market needs to change so that age is no longer a barrier… to people finding jobs, or employers finding people.”

News came earlier this month that Keanu Reeves is now the age Richard Wilson was, when One Foot in the Grave started. 54.

A lesson, if ever you needed it, that age is just a number and that our perceptions and attitudes to age are more relative than many of us realise.

Attitudes to age can be both positive and negative, but they ultimately end up being damaging and restrictive to how we relate to different groups in society. Social attitudes data supports, shown by three interesting findings from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s National Barometer of Prejudice and Discrimination:

  1. More people say that they experience ageism than any other form of discrimination.
  2. People are most likely to say that ageism is not a serious form of discrimination.
  3. People generally feel ‘positive’ towards older people.

The truth is that people feel these things even if they’ve experienced ageism themselves. And a lot of these perceptions then become internalised, accepted, and viewed as harmless.

Ageism has a real impact on how we feel about ourselves and others

As an experiment, what would happen if you flipped the way that you talked about younger and older people? How would it sound?

“I’ll always go out of my way to help a little young lady cross the road with her shopping.”

“Don’t get me wrong I like young people, but does that mean I want a 25-year old behind the wheel of my bus or a 35-year old nurse trying to take a blood sample?”

“Should they even be in work? Surely a few of these younger people could step aside to let some fresh old talent come through.”

“Well you can’t teach a young dog new tricks…”

“It’s an old man’s game”

A lot of this language has become so naturalised that it can be jarring when you apply it to another age group. So why do we accept these stereotypes for some groups and not others? This distinction particularly matters in the job market.

This isn’t just about older people, it’s about everyone and their experiences as they age. When we look at how discrimination impacts older women, older disabled people, or older BAME groups – as well as those stuck in low pay – we can see that inequalities often multiply.
Workplaces are part of our wider society that continues to accept ageist thinking

I’ve been involved in previous research on attitudes to age in Britain. People of all age groups are more likely to view a boss in their 70s as ‘completely unacceptable’ compared to a boss in their 30s. Although overall people feel positive towards older people the form that takes can lead to discriminatory behaviour. The data tells us that we view older people as friendly, moral, warm, trustworthy but not competent. You don’t see many job adverts or head-hunters urgently seeking out warm, friendly candidates.

This has a real impact on individuals. We recently polled over-50s about work and found that:

  • A quarter have been put off applying for jobs as they sound like they’re aimed at younger candidates.
  • A third believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age.
  • One in five think people at work see them as less capable as they get older.

This then plays out in the labour market – in the surge of people who would like to work but can’t over the age of 50, the poor outcomes of older jobseekers in the employment support system, or people turned down for having ‘too much’ experience. Too many people feel that they haven’t been given a fair shot at getting jobs, promotions, or opportunities at work.

Different forms of discrimination multiply together

This isn’t just about older people, it’s about everyone and their experiences as they age. When we look at how discrimination impacts older women, older disabled people, or older BAME groups – as well as those stuck in low pay – we can see that inequalities often multiply through the life course.

The Centre for Ageing Better is looking at evidence and practice about how to make workplaces more age inclusive. A gap in knowledge is around the recruitment process and where and how ageism impacts certain groups. Earlier this year we held a consultation with experts and practitioners in the recruitment industry.

We will soon be launching a new project looking at recruitment and how to ensure that age isn’t a barrier to people finding jobs, and employers finding people. And we have launched a large-scale research project to give us broad understanding of how ageing is described in public discourse, how common terms and framing make people feel and act, and to test new and more constructive ways to talk about ageing and demographic change.

More scrutiny of the stereotypes that we all hold relating to age is certainly a good thing. Some of those assumptions that we may think of as being harmless have very real impacts in the job market and elsewhere. But they don’t have to. 

Becoming an age-friendly employer

Read more
Patrick Thomson
Senior Programme Manager – Fulfilling Work