Age discrimination alive and well in Irish workplaces

Almost 90% of workers over 55 believe age is an issue when seeking employment

Age discrimination is alive and kicking in Irish workplaces. It's illegal under the Employment Equality Acts (1998-2015) but those working in the area say little has changed in relation to workplace age discrimination in Ireland in the past 20 years.

To some extent this is down to conscious bias. Those doing the hiring add up the years of experience on a CV and the person doesn’t even get called for an interview. But a more subtle undercurrent of unconscious bias based on erroneous perceptions about people’s capabilities as they age is also at play.

"Age discrimination has become a hot topic over the last five to 10 years and we saw an increase in claims on this ground during that period," says Síobhra Rush, an Irish-based partner with the international HR law firm Lewis Silkin.

“Employers need to remember that many employees are now well aware that they can challenge a compulsory retirement age if it’s not objectively justifiable. Applicants for a role [or existing employees] can also challenge a recruitment decision if they feel they have been discriminated against on the grounds of age.


"That said, the number of age-discrimination cases brought before the Workplace Relations Commission [WRC] was down in 2019, presumably as a result of the code of practice on longer working issued by the WRC and the IHREC [Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission] guidelines regarding the offer of fixed-term contracts after an employee has reached the retirement age for that employment."

‘Powerful influence’

Stereotyping around ageing is persistent and widespread despite having no established scientific basis, according to Dr Trudy Corrigan, a researcher in the DCU-based National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre.

“The stereotyping of older people in society at large is pervasive. It has a powerful influence and it often starts in childhood, which is why a positive attitude to ageing needs to be nurtured from early on,” she says.

“In the context of the workplace, it includes assumptions that once people reach a certain age they become resistant to change and have less ability to learn new skills – especially in technology. However, evidence to support these stereotypes is rarely found and, in fact, the capacity to learn is largely unaffected by age.

"An important consideration when looking at research on ageing, especially in the workplace, concerns the hard evidence regarding intellectual functioning," adds Corrigan, who recently co-authored Ageism and Bullying in the Workplace with Prof Mark Morgan.

“The research derived from psychometric studies, as well as work-based outcomes, suggest that common perceptions regarding older people may be quite wrong. Increased age is seldom associated with lower levels of cognitive functioning.

“Older people learn to compensate in a variety of ways for those aspects that are affected by intellectual decline. These include strategies that capitalise on their strengths and their experiences of similar events in the past. The result is that studies of competence in the working environment show that people continue to improve into their 60s and beyond.”

Previous research into ageism in the Irish workplace found that almost 90 per cent of workers over 55 believe their age went against them when seeking employment, while more than a third said potential employers saw them as too old for industries such as IT. In fact, in some sectors 40 is already considered “over the hill”.

Age prejudice flies in the face of the diversity and inclusion agenda that so many organisations now claim to support and deprives them of a cohort of people with valuable life and work experience and a deep reservoir of tacit knowledge.

Multigenerational workforce

It also means they are missing out on creating a multigenerational workforce that puts the EQ (emotional intelligence) of older people and the DQ (digital intelligence) of younger people together to create what the highly successful hospitality entrepreneur Chip Conley calls "a powerful alchemy".

Conley was speaking from first-hand experience. At 50-something, with a background in traditional hospitality, he was hired by Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, who believed his company, which was staffed by people less than half Conley's age, would benefit from the older man's industry expertise and his well-developed people and organisational skills.

The Central Statistics Office estimates there will be about 1.5 million people aged 65 or over in Ireland by 2051. (In 2016 the figure was just under 630,000). With the qualifying age for the old-age pension likely to be pushed out, people are going to be in the workplace for longer, which Corrigan says makes tackling age bias an imperative.

“Organisations need to create a supportive HR climate that assists with addressing ageism and this starts at the selection process, because we know employers quietly find reasons to exclude people if they have an age bias in their hiring,” she says.

“Employers also need to provide opportunities for training so that older employees can remain in the workplace for longer and, contrary to received wisdom, most older workers will very much welcome these reskilling and retraining opportunities. Older workers are most at risk of leaving the workplace if they feel intimidated by lack of training in relation to new practices or if they require more work-life balance and ageism against older workers is particularly acute for women.

“Our next step is to conduct new research into ageism in the Irish workplace with a view to breaking down the stereotypes, educating employers about the legislation and creating a much broader buy-in to the benefits of the multigenerational workforce.”