Britain cracks down on age discrimination

A new law could mean more jobs for people over 50, who experts say will make up a third of the workforce by 2021.

Joe Fowler has lost count of the number of resumes he's sent out in recent years. Maybe 2,000, maybe more. But keeping count of the responses has proven far easier.

"If I've had more than 20 replies, I'd be surprised," says Mr. Fowler, who has been unemployed for more than two years. "The reality is that as soon as you are over the age of 50 you are invisible to employers. I feel as though I have been cast on a scrapheap."

An energetic 62-year-old with 40 years of experience in sales and marketing, Fowler is full of crushing tales from the sharp end of the British jobs market: recruitment agencies asking him to stop sending CVs; job center officials telling him he is too experienced; multinationals refusing to consider candidates over the age of 45.

But all that is set to change in Britain with the introduction this month of new legislation prohibiting age discrimination. Bosses and recruiters beware: The regulations, which took force Oct. 1, give workers the opportunity to sue for compensation if they feel companies have treated them unfairly because of their age.

Experts have called it the most radical shake-up of British employment law since sex- and race-discrimination legislation was passed a generation ago. For companies, it's a perilous new age, so to speak.

From now on, that job ad specifying a "youthful," "energetic," or "mature" candidate could have litigious consequences. Likewise, that redundancy round for over-50s, or a remuneration system that rewards seniority.

"This is legislation that protects people of all ages," says Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age, a lobbying group. "Companies need to look at recruitment and retirement and everything in between: training, rewards, benefits, pay, redundancy."

The move is timely. Like other rich Western countries, Britain is getting older. The ratio of workers to retirees is shifting decisively, threatening a pensions crisis. The government has signaled that because people are living longer and staying healthier, many will have to work well beyond the standard retirement age of 65. But that will be possible only if employers employ them.

"In just 15 years, the over-50s will make up more than a third of the workforce," noted Alistair Darling, Britain's trade and industry secretary. "Ignoring a whole generation makes no sense. The individual loses, the company loses, and the economy loses a wealth of talent and experience. What matters is the person, their skills, and abilities, not their age."

Hear, hear, says Fowler. "I've got so much I still want to give," he says. "What a waste – any sensible company could get all this experience at a knock-down rate. And I'm not alone. You'll find there are thousands of people like me."

Well, hundreds of thousands. A recent survey by the Trades Union found that 1 million 50- to 65-year-olds want a job – more than a third of that age group. The cost of shutting these people out of the jobs market has been estimated at £31 billion ($57.5 billion) a year. Another survey for the charity Help the Aged found that 65 percent of people believe the modern workplace to be ageist.

Older people often have a harder time finding work because they generally cost more and are sometimes considered harder to mold, manage, and train.

But will the new law help? Experts warn there will be no overnight revolution. After all, discrimination based on race and sex still persists 30 years after such action was outlawed. Just last week, a female health inspector lost a case in which she complained that male equivalents were outearning her by £9,000 because she was a woman.

Lawyers note, moreover, that unlike race and sex discrimination, there are plenty of blurred lines with the new age laws.

James Davies, head of employment law at the London firm Lewis Silkin, says that some employers will still be able to justify that they need people of specific ages to work for them. Even the government admits that a 20-year-old will not be able to find work as a brain surgeon or airline pilot, given the long years of training required.

"An employer who says he wants someone under 30 to work in a nightclub will be able to justify that," says Mr. Davies. "Or a removal company who wants someone under 55 might also be able to justify it."

In short, there is plenty of scope for uncertainty – and litigation. Similar laws have been enacted in other EU countries in recent years with few landmark lawsuits because European workers enjoy greater workplace protection and rarely need to sue employers. Britain is different, with a compensation culture more akin to that of America. And as in America, which brought in age discrimination laws in 1967, Davies expects the law will be of most benefit to more affluent people.

"The most common claims will come from highly paid, older, white male executives, who often get replaced by new blood," Davies says.

Unlike the American laws, which only protect people over 40, the British laws are designed to protect the young, too. Already, some young workers have gotten a raise to bring their take-home into line with those of older workers.

Fowler suspects that it is the young, not the old, who stand to gain most from the law. "If employers know there is a restriction on when they can get rid of you, they are less likely to take you on," he says. In short, he may start to get more replies from employers, perhaps even a few more interviews.

"But they'll still be able to come up with an excuse," he says, "why they chose the 25-year-old over the 62-year-old."

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