Why is it still considered OK to be ageist?

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.

In 2012, a quarter of the UK workforce was over 50 — by 2050 it will be over a third © Corey Hendrickson

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.

GM140108_22X The UK economy increasingly depends on older workers

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.

Discrimination often goes under the radar, with workers fearing that reporting it will affect their career © Getty Images

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!” 

Older people are more likely to be working

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.

Last month I canvassed the views of several hundred older professionals who have become teachers with Now Teach, a charity I co-founded five years ago. Two-thirds said they had experienced no age discrimination and felt the different experiences that came with advanced age were welcomed by their younger colleagues — and by their students. One Now Teacher said he was the go-to person at his school for help on tech, as he’d spent 32 years working at IBM. He was also a key member of the Friday five-a-side football team and a mainstay at the pub afterwards.

However, a third said that at some point they had come across ageism at school — though none of them had seen fit to complain. One 63-year-old who had completed her teacher training with flying colours was turned down without interview by five London state schools in which the management was uniformly young. It was only when she applied to a private school, where older teachers are less of an oddity, that she was offered the job. As she had no other options, she took it.

When I was setting up Now Teach I found ageism everywhere. One person who was in favour of the general idea joked that we should get ourselves sponsored by Stannah stairlifts and seemed surprised I didn’t think this especially hilarious. One headteacher said they didn’t want our trainees because teacher training was exhausting enough for people in their twenties — so people in their fifties wouldn’t be able to hack it. He smiled at me patronisingly as if he had just produced a hard fact rather than an ageist slur. Back then, I sucked it up. I wouldn’t now.

These assumptions about older workers — that we lack energy, can’t do tech, can’t generate new ideas — are not only widespread but are acquired so young they seem to be almost innate. Just before Christmas I asked my Year 12 economics students to write down any common characteristics of workers aged 55 and above. Their heads went down. Pens flew across pages. Don’t be polite, I said. I want to know what you really think.

“Bad at technology,” wrote one of my highest achieving and most agreeable students. “Poor memory. Get tired easily. Racist. Sexist. Rich. Complain a lot. Can’t learn new things. Wrinkled. Experienced. Sweet and gentle.”

Assumptions about older workers are ‘not only widespread but are acquired so young they seem to be almost innate’ © Gregg Segal

I scanned the other lists — all of which said much the same thing — and then stared down at the class. Two dozen 16-year-old girls looked back unabashed. Put your hands up, I demanded, if you would be upset if someone accused you of racism. The whole class raised their hands.

I’m accusing you of ageism, I said.

The students looked puzzled. As far as they were concerned they had merely written down a few things that were obviously true.

I told them “wrinkles” and “experience” were borderline admissible, though even then it depended. All the others were nonsense. How many were true of me? The class concurred that I was not sweet or gentle. I did not lack energy. I was not sexist or racist.

“But Miss, you are bad at tech,” one of them pointed out.

She had a point. But this is not true of all older workers — the teacher who’s best at tech in my school is well into his fifties. I’m bad at tech partly because it doesn’t interest me, and because I have allowed myself to play up to the older person stereotype. “Oh dear,” I say whenever my screen freezes. “Can a young person help me?”

This is the most lethal thing about ageism — how quick we are to apply negative stereotypes to ourselves. As Applewhite puts it: “Older people are often the most ageist of all, because we’ve had a lifetime of absorbing negative messages about age and ageing — that older people are incompetent or out of touch, for example. Unless you stop to question these messages, they become part of your identity.”

The other day I left my glasses at a friend’s house. Senior moment, I said as I cycled over to pick them up. She laughed and told me about locking herself out of her house. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, we both agreed. The very next day my daughter phoned to say she had left her glasses at the beautician round the corner from my house. Neither of us said “junior moment” or took this as a sinister sign of anything. It was just something annoying that happens.

Our ageist attitudes towards ourselves aren’t just limiting, they shorten our lives. A study by academics at Yale found that people with a negative approach to ageing deal with it worse mentally and physically and die seven and a half years younger.

To put this in context, mild obesity shortens life by three years, extreme obesity by 10. Hardly surprisingly, this has prompted a great deal of fuss at government level. Policymakers and health professionals obsess over obesity. But what about the damage done by poor attitudes to ageing? Until I read about the survey I had no idea it was even a thing: the fact that ageism can actually kill you is a well-kept secret.

It is also a costly one. According to the WHO report, the resulting ill health places an additional annual burden on the US healthcare of $63bn. I realise that health policymakers have been busy since the report came out last March, but still there hasn’t been a peep out of them.

Changing our outdated attitudes to ageing is going to be a long haul, but there is early evidence from the US that shifts may be occurring. Last summer, 170 social-science researchers signed a letter saying it was stupid, arbitrary and damaging to use generational labels and generalise about people based on their being millennials or baby boomers. As the journalist Catherine Bennett later pointed out, characterising someone as a typical Gen Y is about as sensible as characterising them as a typical Scorpio.

The media is intermittently doing its bit by producing positive role models for older workers, though it doesn’t always get it right. A tub-thumping article on the BBC website on how women in particular suffer from ageism featured a 72-year-old entrepreneur and make-up artist whose business was called Look Fabulous Forever. The implication was unfortunate: the best way to fight off ageism was with a stick of mascara and an eyebrow pencil.

In the end, the onus may be on my generation to get things moving by calling out ageism in others whenever we see it and trying to wean ourselves off our own ageist notions. I have vowed that the next time anyone tries to talk to me about stairlifts or the supposed low energy of fiftysomethings, I will make them regret it. I’m also pleased to report that I have just figured out all by myself how to survey Now Teachers using Google Forms — without having to call on a young person to help. Guess what? It turned out to be (relatively) easy.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of the charity Now Teach

Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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