Why is it still considered OK to be ageist?

Lucy Kellaway does well below to set out the problem of unreasonable discrimination against old people.  I am 78 myself but retired early from the workforce to concentrate on business so have had none of the problems described below.

Lucy does however ignore the elephant in the room when she looks at the cause of ageism.  She  is right in saying that older people do tend to have handicaps such as poor memories and discomfort with new technology but ignores a major problem:  Appearance.  Youth is the beauty ideal in our society.  And that has its reasons.  Our health is best in our youth and it is undoubtedly an exciting time with intimate relations.  I had a ball for many years.

So for whatever reason, the physical appearance of the old counts against them  A young person is felt to look better and more desirable as company.  And that counts. Appearances count, and can count very heavily.

A graphic realization of that is the desperate attempt by many  women to retain their youthful looks. Cosmetic empires are built on that.  It's a reasonable recognition of the relevance of physical appearance in our society.  People don't like an aged appearance and don't want it around themselves

In my own case my looks deteriorated at the expected pace but I was still doing well into my 60s.  The crunch came in my 70s.  When a long relationship came to an end, I had difficulty finding a new one. 

So I don't think that rebelling against the limits of the aged will do much good.  The aged themselves have to promote and demonstrate the assets they do have.  And they are many. Some are mentioned in passing below.  We have so many that it is rather churlish to rail against areas in which we have handicaps.  We should be grateful for a life well-lived instead.  And if our life was not well-lived we should look at why and accept what cannot now be changed -- JR

In September 2018 Ian Tapping, a project manager at the Ministry of Defence, called a meeting with HR. He had been in dispute with his employer and wanted to make a bullying and harassment claim. In the course of the conversation his HR manager asked when he intended to retire — Tapping, who was in his early sixties, subsequently quit and sued the MoD for age discrimination.

Last month he won his case. A judge ruled that it is illegal to ask someone about retirement plans unless they have raised the subject themselves, which had not happened in this instance. Such a question was ageist, said the judge, as it would not have been put to a 30-year-old.

The verdict was duly reported in the Daily Mail and the paper’s readers, who like nothing better than a spot of outrage, were well and truly disgusted. This country has gone mad, they exclaimed.

Given that the average Mail reader is only a couple of years younger than Mr Tapping, the hostility was odd. Ageism is so rampant that they are likely to have been the butt of it themselves. A 2021 World Health Organization survey found that every second person holds ageist attitudes, while according to the National Barometer of Prejudice and Discrimination, a 2018 study undertaken for Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, 26 per cent of people experienced age discrimination in a year.

Survey after survey establishes the same things: people over 50 find it harder to get job interviews (unless, perhaps, they are applying to be president of the US) and are more likely to be eased out of existing jobs.

The ruling last month seems an obvious case of progress. It rightly puts retirement on a par with pregnancy — over the past couple of decades, employers have learnt not to ask a young woman when she plans to have a child, unless they want to end up in court. Now it turns out that the same principle applies to older workers.

This may require quite some adjustment, as that sort of question is asked all the time. When I discussed the case with a 56-year-old friend, she said her boss at the world-famous consumer goods company where she works had that very week asked: “Am I correct to assume you intend to be on the organisational chart at the end of 2022?” Which was a fancy way of implying he would not be sorry if the answer was no.

Not only will employers have to adjust, they will need to do so snappily, as there are so many more older workers about. In 2012, a quarter of the UK workforce was over 50 — by 2050 it will be over a third. On average, men in the UK now work till 65, two years longer than in 2000. Women now retire on average at 64, up from 61 20 years ago.

Although ageism is everywhere, few victims choose to do a Tapping and take their employers to court. Even though it has been illegal in the UK to discriminate on the basis of age since 2006, such cases make up only a negligible percentage of the overall workload of employment tribunals. “It’s still under the radar,” says Lyndsey Simpson, founder of the employment website 55/Redefined, “because people don’t want to go on the record. They think they’ll be attacked and they think it will be career-limiting. I’ve lost count of the number of men who are turned down for jobs and are told: you are overqualified, or you don’t meet our diversity requirements.”

Last month, when 62-year-old Adam Boulton left his post as political editor of Sky News, he told the Times it was by “mutual decision” and that the channel was concentrating on “the next generation”. He added: “Television is very sensitive to the idea of diversity.” There seemed to be no irony in his remark — the thought that true diversity should also include age had not occurred either to him or his employer.

Not only is age the poor relation in diversity policies, it is still perfectly acceptable in polite society to be rampantly ageist. In The Atlantic last month was an article bemoaning the fact that America no longer generates big ideas in culture, science or business. One reason for this, said the writer (35), was that the people in charge were getting older — and older people were not so good at coming up with new ideas. If he had said that women were less creative, he would have been cancelled on the spot. But this aspersion, which he made little attempt to stand up, sailed through all checks and balances and, once published, caused minor grumbling rather than full-on fury.

Our blindness to ageism is particularly puzzling as it is a prejudice not against people who are different from us (other races, genders etc) but against our future selves. According to Ashton Applewhite, the US anti-ageism campaigner and author, this hostility is a product of fear. We dread getting old because we overexaggerate the risk that we will end up in an old people’s home, senile and smelling of pee.

Fear may be part of it, but there is something else going on too. The ageism against my generation — I am 62 — feels personal. We aren’t allowed to feel discriminated against because we’ve had it so good.

I mentioned this article to a 25-year-old friend at the school where I teach. She rolled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t feel bad for you boomers. You guys have got the pensions. You’ve destroyed the climate. I live in a rented flat with illegal cladding — you live in a huge house. All the power structures in society benefit you. How many top people in companies or politicians are under 30?”

I pointed out that 2m older people in the UK live below the poverty line. I said older people are expected to tolerate discrimination of a sort that other groups are belatedly being freed from. She scoffed; I challenged her to unload her view of boomers.

“Technophobes! Narrow-minded!” she began.

“Borderline alcoholics! Stuck in your ways! Terfs!” chimed in another twentysomething who shares the same office.

The first then added: “But it’s not all bad. You guys are useful for advice on mortgages.”

OK, I thought, age discrimination cuts both ways. “Snowflakes!” I yelled back at them. “Entitled! Lazy!”

In a way, the slanging match was fun and was a sign of how well we get on. These are my two best friends at school and mostly we seem to be a living example of why age diversity at work is good for everyone. We all agree that our differences make our working lives better (as well as being good for our students). But our debate made me uneasy and left me wondering if there is some ugly stuff lurking under the surface.


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