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David Webb: Don't let age catch-up on you

Friday 01 February 2019

David Webb discusses how we can avoid age discrimination in the workplace

David Webb David Webb, Workplace Policy Manager

David is a former journalist and newspaper manager who joined the Acas admin team in Bristol in 2010. Other Acas roles have included regional publicity manager, PR and media manager, and guidance researcher and writer. He is the main author of Acas' advice on equality and discrimination, including the latest new guidance on preventing age discrimination. He is currently part of the workplace policy team at Acas.

Do you mind if I ask how old you are?

In July last year the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee reported that despite the Equality Act coming into force nine years ago and a compelling business case for an age-diverse workforce, age discrimination was 'rife' in many workplaces.

Why is this and what can be done?

I have worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to publish clear practical guidance to prevent age discrimination at work, yet have come to the conclusion that age often finds itself in the shadow of discrimination for other reasons.

An issue is that age discrimination can be harder to pin down because the law does allow different treatment because of age in quite a few, but limited circumstances. However, people at work of any age can be protected against age discrimination, and our own research pdf icon Managing Older Workers: A report for Acas [504kb] found that stereotyping is likely to harm younger as much as older workers - as well as those somewhere in the middle!

Age discrimination may also be a less emotive subject than the other parts of the Equality Act. The conversations I have had with charities, unions and employer groups on age have always been polite and well-informed, but people do not thump the table like they can do regarding other parts of life protected by the Act.

Having said that the age debate can be hard to pin down, most of the focus at the moment is admittedly on older workers. The Government adopted the mantra of 'retain, retrain and recruit' to try and fill the skills gap in many workplaces and we all know the demographics - within just three years one in three of the working population in Britain will be aged 50 or over. But knowing that many of our workers will be classed as 'older' is one thing; making sure we create an age-diverse workplace that welcomes them is another matter altogether.

Research commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently highlighted some of the particular concerns of older workers:

  • more than three-quarters (78 per cent) said they would like more flexible hours
  • 73 per cent said they wanted to see more part-time positions offered
  • more than half (63 per cent) said there should be more training and retraining schemes to help ageing workers gain new skills and deal with technology.

Big parts of the challenge for many employers include to start listening to the concerns of older workers and to stop making assumptions about workers' capabilities and likely behaviours based on their age or age group, as highlighted in a report from the charitable foundation, the Centre for Ageing Better.

First steps can include:

  • avoid stereotyping at all costs: for example, avoid the mind-set that older workers don't get on with technology or younger workers shun responsibility
  • assess people on their job performance or the quality of their job application and not on any assumptions because of their age, and
  • encourage age-diversity: people of different generations can improve a business's skills mix and together they can come up with good ideas to benefit a business that may otherwise have been overlooked.

To help prevent stereotyping and age discrimination, Acas has launched new guidance, Age discrimination: key points for the workplace, at Age discrimination.

And the answer to the question at the top? Yes you should mind. For the vast majority of us, how old we are should be irrelevant at work, no matter what our age.

2 Comments

  • Posted by David Webb  |  12 March 2019, 11:21AM

    Yes, age discrimination is a very tough nut to crack. First, as you say, because the human brain is prone to unconscious bias. But again, as you say, if we're aware of that, we can take steps to address our own thinking and have the courage to call out others. Second, age discrimination has not been taken as seriously as it should be. For example, while few people would express sexist or racist views or remarks, many people don't seem too worried about being ageist. I am hopeful that attitudes towards age will become more enlightened. They're going to need to, particularly with the change in Britain's age demographic, which means fewer younger people in the nation's workforce and progressively more people over 50.

  • Posted by Sue Eakin  |  5 February 2019, 1:06PM
    Age discrimination at work is a tough nut to crack because unconscious bias is inherently human and unless the individual recognises and addresses this, discriminatory attitudes will persist. As HR Manager in my own workplace, I've delivered discrimination awareness training but still encounter 'unhelpful' attitudes towards those at either end of the age spectrum.
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