Age Discrimination – Employment Law Comes of Age

Age Discrimination – Employment Law Comes of Age

The Government has lots of reasons to be taking a deep breath and ploughing in on the issue of age discrimination says Frances Barker of Blocks Solicitors (right).

The law coming in next October will not be just a legalistic tinkering around the edges. The express aim is to bring about a culture change, perhaps in the way that the law on sex discrimination has in relation to women at work since the 1970s.

The gradual disappearance of the traditional conveyor belt along and up into seniority and then suddenly off the end into retirement, will gradually have a massive impact on our workplaces. And add to the mix the increase in flexible working and part-time working for both sexes and the traditional stereotypical employment structures begin to breakdown. The level of consultation that has been gone through and the careful way they seem to have genuinely listened to employers, indicates that the Government realises how tricky this all is and perhaps wants to be able to spread the blame if it all goes horribly wrong.

So why attempt this sea change? There are several reasons for taking the political, economic and legislative risks involved.

1. European law requires it, as by December 2006 age discrimination, the final strand of equality, must be put in place. We already have the law on equal pay and on discrimination on the ground of sex, race, disability, religious belief and sexual orientation, so age is the final piece in the jigsaw. The European Directive demands and the Government has no choice.

2. The birth rate is dropping and life expectancy is increasing. For example, a boy of 15 can expect to live until he is over 91. What do you do when you have a reducing number of workers? Get those that you have to work for longer! So the minimum contractual retirement age is to be 65, with the right to request to continue after that.

3. The pensions crisis is looming, a financial time bomb that even short-term politics can no longer afford to ignore. The earlier people retire the sooner their pension contributions stop and the earlier and longer the scheme pays out. Long life is becoming nationally unaffordable. When the state pension was brought in, many people expected to have only a few years as pensioners, compared to the 20, 30 or even 40 years they may have now. The later people can work, the better for pension schemes, so it’s an obvious move to lengthen our working lives. Perhaps the old ‘work ’til you drop’ culture is once more to be a reality.

The working population statistics in Suffolk are even worse than the national ones, with the young moving out and the old moving in. 37% of the population here are aged 50 and over, compared with 33% nationally, and with house prices as they are it looks as if the trend will continue. That is a challenge for local businesses, looking to older people in order to maximise the skills available, perhaps increasingly drawing part time from the skilled pool of the semi-retired.

Another reason is the practical advantage to employers, says the Government. Businesses who have already adopted age positive practices report improved rates of keeping staff, higher staff morale, fewer short-term absences, a better public image, and access to a wider customer base and a wider range of skills and experience to bring to the job. The great University of Life seems to be of considerable benefit. And perhaps fairly recognising merit and competence, rather than being misled by the stereotypes associated with youth or old age, will always be good for business.

Frances Barker is an employment specialist at Blocks Employment Service. Contact her at Blocks Solicitors on tel. 01473 343905 or frb@blockslegal.co.uk

Printed with kind permission of Business in East Anglia October 2005