Ageism in the workplace: An age-old problem
It’s not uncommon for people over the age of 50 in Ireland to experience some form of ageism
The call for diversity often fails to take older workers into account. Photograph: iStock
While there’s still a lot of progress to be made with regards to gender, LGBT and racial diversity within Irish companies, there’s certainly more focus on the subject now than there was just a decade ago. Research shows a diverse work environment is simply good business sense, with teams made up of people from different cultures, genders and races often proving more innovative and creative than their peers. Unfortunately, this call for diversity often fails to take older workers into account.
“Ageism is still prevalent perhaps because, unlike other forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, it is still socially accepted and usually unchallenged,” says Anne Kearney, PR, communications and marketing manager with NGO Age and Opportunity.
“Age stereotypes focus predominantly on the negative aspects of ageing, and our language and media, including films, television, advertising, popular music, print and social media, often reinforce these stereotypes. It usually ignores the many positive stories of older lives.”
It’s not uncommon for people over the age of 50 in Ireland to experience some form of ageism, and their chances of gaining new employment once they pass this threshold are slim. Many workers have a mandatory retirement age – typically 65 – written into their contracts, but the fact is many employees are living longer, healthier lives than previous generations. Even if they’re willing and able to continue in their role, they’re made to step aside to make way for new blood.
The current situation is based on an outdated version of retirement, and the legal framework needs to be reframed to cater for people living longer
“Some older people will want to work for longer, and some may have to remain working due to financial considerations,” explains Kearney. “The current situation where people leave work at 65 but are not entitled to the State pension until they turn 66 [and in the future 68] creates a great deal of difficulty and financial hardship for older workers and we feel strongly this needs to be examined. Abolishing mandatory retirement ages is just one measure. The current situation is based on an outdated version of retirement, and the legal framework needs to be reframed to cater for people living longer.”
According to Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), “Many people now wish to continue to work for longer. They should be able to do so without being treated less favourably or subjected to discrimination.”
In April 2018 the IHREC published new guidelines for employers to ensure older workers who want to continue beyond their contracted retirement age can do so. In 2017 age discrimination cases made up 14 per cent of those reported under the Employment Equality Acts. The new guidelines focus on the potential for discrimination based on employees reaching a certain age, in addition to the offering of fixed-term contracts for those who have.
Emily says: “The commission brought forward guidelines specifically about retirement and age discrimination to help employers and employees understand the legal standards which govern retirement age, and how to approach different working arrangements if desired, without giving rise to discrimination on the grounds of age or any other protected ground. This information can empower both employers and employees to make informed decisions about their own situations.”
An opportunity, not a problem
Of course, older workers come with a wealth of experience and knowledge, which needs to be viewed as an opportunity instead of a problem. Kearney says: “There is evidence employers’ attitudes remain a barrier to participation by older workers, with a 2016 William Fry report illustrating the negative stereotypes they can face [less tech-savvy, less adaptable, etc]. However, studies also show older employees have lower rates of absenteeism and are more committed so there is a business case for hiring and retaining older employees.”
Education and awareness will be the key to tackling this issue, states Kearney. “Tackling age stereotyping in society requires greater awareness as before people can be motivated to avoid stereotyping they must first be made aware of their biases.
“We need to start shifting our view of ageing as a society and recognise the contribution older people make. We all have a vested interest in tackling this issue – if you live to retirement age, the chances are that you will live another 16-20 years and maybe much longer and there’s a good chance you’ll be at the receiving end of ageism.”