Public Services Management: An age-old question of discrimination: Are people over the hill at 50? or 40? or even 30? some councils think so, says Liza Donaldson

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The Independent Online
AGE discrimination is rife among the ranks of local government - one of the country's biggest employers, regarded in other respects as a leader in the field of equal opportunities - according to a study published today.

The study, which includes a survey of 231 councils out of a national total of 541 - employers of some 2.5 million people - found that a number of ageist attitudes were expressed, in some cases towards people as young as 30. Comments included 'over the hill and on the scrap heap at 50', 'the brain deteriorates with age', and 'you don't get your money's worth from older people'.

Councils which targeted older people with specific advertisements for jobs suitable for mature workers, nearly one in five, listed low-status jobs like lavatory attendants, housing wardens, cleaners and car park attendants most frequently, with some managers citing posts like 'bowling green attendants' and 'carers for grannies'.

The findings in Age Barriers at Work, by Catherine Itzin and Chris Phillipson, the first study of its kind into local government, discovered ageist attitudes and barriers at every stage of working life in local government. They come as some embarrassment in the European Year of Older People, when a host of initiatives to fight ageism have been launched.

The results of the study, which found that a majority of councils (57 per cent) backed the idea of laws favouring the recruitment and utilisation of older workers, are all the more surprising given the views of enlightened authorities such as Cleveland County Council. This authority states: 'Decisions based on age are rarely justifiable, are frequently of poor quality and lead to ineffective use of human resources. Current research indicates that discrimination against 'older' workers becomes significant from 40 onwards.' Hounslow council's age equality policy, also commended in the report, says people should be employed on the basis of 'genuine occupational criteria, by their ability to do the job and not on their chronological age'.

The researchers established that while the vast majority of councils, 76 per cent, had equal opportunities policies, only just over one-third (37 per cent) included age in them.

Most telling of all was a survey of line manager attitudes and the finding that women face the double jeopardy of age and gender. Although councils have positive corporate policies towards the employment of older workers, the attitude survey of 303 line managers found they had particularly negative attitudes towards older workers, 44 per cent believing age was an obstacle in recruitment. One manager commented: 'New ideas from young blood. Older people have one foot on retirement.' Many held stereotypical views that older workers were more difficult to train, found it hard to adapt to change, were less motivated and enthusiastic and less physically strong.

Line managers tended to view women in their forties as 'older workers' more often than men, with a few categorising women as 'older workers' as young as 30. Researchers said the fact that women were seen as being older at a 'sometimes ridiculously early age . . . is likely to have a negative impact on women's employment and career opportunities in an increasingly youth-orientated culture'. Older workers who were women were seen as less suitable than men of the same age for chief executive and senior management jobs as well as porters, caretakers and road workers. The golden decade for promotion, seen as between 45-55, favoured men, with an unbroken career record.

Despite the fact that 19 per cent of authorities have established career break schemes, women in senior positions spoke of the male culture and long hours, and of the pressures to minimise or not take career breaks at all, since absence was seen as a mark of not being committed. Researchers summed up that women were 'perceived as ageing earlier than men, disadvantaged by breaks in service due to caring responsibilities, missing the 'golden decade' of promotion, and regarded as past the optimum point of career progression 10 years younger than men. There is evidence that women encounter barriers determined by age as well as gender.'

In recruitment, nearly half the councils surveyed, 49 per cent, had dropped maximum age criteria from their job adverts, but 92 per cent still asked for applicants' ages. At the selection stage, one manager confessed he had seen applications from those aged under 20 and over 50 binned. Only 22 per cent of authorities had personal details like age on a removable section of the form, to be dealt with separately by a monitoring unit.

A case study of 11 authorities showed that although none of the councils had overt, official age criteria for selection of employees for training, many of them acknowledged that there was plenty of indirect discrimination, with older people being denied chances to go on training courses. However, in one authority where managers encouraged a training scheme for older manual workers, they were overwhelmed with applications once the ice was broken.

A grim picture of the current situation for early retirement emerged. Three-quarters of authorities actively encouraged early retirement as a response to budget cutbacks, using retirement to avoid redundancies. Most employees felt forced to accept early retirement as an alternative to redundancy. The researchers point out that the short-term gains of early retirement should be set against the loss of substantial knowledge, experience and expertise. They recommend a whole series of actions from targeting recruitment, the development of age awareness programmes for managers, and training programmes more suited to the learning styles of older workers as well as regular age audits.

Sally Greengross, director of Age Concern, welcomes the idea of age audits and the study as a whole. She says: 'It does reflect attitudes towards old people which permeate the whole of society and is rather negative and destructive, to individuals, to employees, to employers. These sorts of barriers to older people are also very destructive in terms of the whole economy.' Lady Greengross, who sits on the Government's working party on age, says the first step in removing age barriers is to take ages out of job advertisements. But she warns that if voluntary action by employers fails, age discrimination legislation, already in place in America and Canada, will be needed.

Age Barriers at Work: maximising the potential of mature and older workers, by Dr Catherine Itzen and Professor Chris Phillipson.

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