Talkin' 'bout my ( jobless) generation

By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

So you thought ageism only affected the ageing? Wrong. Over half of 18 to 30-year-olds say they are being held back at work because of their age, according to new research by careers consultancy Sanders & Sidney. What's more, the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA), which usually campaigns on behalf of older people in the workforce, is backing the claim.

So you thought ageism only affected the ageing? Wrong. Over half of 18 to 30-year-olds say they are being held back at work because of their age, according to new research by careers consultancy Sanders & Sidney. What's more, the Employers' Forum on Age (EFA), which usually campaigns on behalf of older people in the workforce, is backing the claim.

"We have long suspected there is workplace prejudice against youth," says EFA development director Ruth Jarratt, who believes the problem is a legacy of the early 1990s.

"Money was short and downsizing became flavour of the month. As a result, companies recruited less, and when they did recruit, they didn't want to give themselves even more costs by getting in people who would need training.

"That meant staying clear of young people who weren't 'broken in' elsewhere. Despite the fact that recruitment is back on a high, that attitude has remained."

In addition, she says, a much higher proportion of the population attend university now. "Many of the subjects, particularly the social sciences, have been belittled by the media. The result is that the status and value of graduates has decreased. Employers often go for third or fourth jobbers so they have the added guarantees of references and experience."

Also significant is that "Generation Xers - people born in the 1970s and early 1980s - saw the jobs of their parents' generation axed time and time again, and are determined to take charge of their own career development. They'll work hard and put in the hours, but move on once they've learned what they can from an organisation.

"Little wonder that employers aren't crying out for such fickle folk," says occupational psychologist Andrew Martin.

Large organisations seem to be the worst offenders when it comes to discrimination. "In smaller companies, the manager is likely to do the recruiting and will do so on the basis of the individual. But in larger businesses, the human resources department may be given that job, and they are very often given a list of credentials and experience that young people can't possibly live up to," says Ms Jarratt.

In the Sanders & Sidney report, a poll of young people revealed that IT firms and the police force are among the worst offenders for discrimination. Across all sectors, nearly a quarter of those surveyed feel that their ideas are not taken seriously because they are considered too young.

"So severe is the problem of youth ageism that the same proportion worry that if they haven't made it by their early 30s, they never will," says Sally Davis, director of Sanders & Sidney.

The solution, believes the EFA, is to get the message across to employers that the Government's voluntary code on ageism, launched over a year ago, applies as much to young people as old.

Among the six principles of the voluntary code are a top-level commitment to build age awareness into all aspects of business. Sainsbury's, whose policy on age diversity is considered a model of best practice, has regular equal opportunity workshops and training, the effects of which are reviewed six-monthly.

But although Nationwide, Manpower and HSBC are among other leading employers pledging board-level commitment to fighting ageism, interviews with all three companies revealed they perceive ageism as an issue affecting older people.

It's one of the reasons why Makbool Javaid, a specialist employment lawyer, believes any voluntary measure is "a half measure".

"It only represents broad guidelines on how you should conduct yourself when recruiting or making redundancies. We know from experience that doesn't work.

"Consider the guidelines recommending that employers should ensure 3 per cent of their workforce was made up of disabled people. It rarely happened until a statutory framework was brought in. It's a nice idea to concentrate on amending attitudes rather than the law, but the truth is you need legislation to achieve it."

Ben Williams, a chartered corporate psychologist, is one of many sceptics of claims of youth ageism.

"A major flaw of this research is that it focuses on what young job seekers and employees think rather than what employers think - and part of being young is to feel discriminated against.

"That's why I'm not surprised people believe that if they haven't made it by their early 30s, they never will. That age group always feel like that. It doesn't mean they're right."

Dr Chris Lewis, a partner in occupational psychology consultancy Anderson Lewis, agrees: "Job seekers have to be far more proactive than they used to in the days of milk rounds. This has undoubtedly left them feeling less wanted, but that isn't the reality."

Kate Purcell, professor of employment studies at Bristol Business School, believes the rising number of graduates taking time out to travel or going into boring, underpaid "McGrad" jobs is also relevant.

"There has been an increase in the number of drifters in the past 10 years. They take dead-end jobs to earn easy money or to think about their careers, and then panic that they've left it too late."

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