Today, the issue finally hits Parliament in the shape of a Bill introduced by the Labour MP David Winnick, which would ban the practice of specifying upper age limits in recruitment advertising. It is a modest proposal, long advocated by Age Concern, but unlikely to reach the statute books. Nevertheless, it is the first sign of a "going-grey" fight-back as the baby boomers, the generation that has grown up amid Britain's cult of youth, struggles against being consumed by its own revolution.
For those in early middle age, often saddled with mortgages and young children, employment prospects are getting to look terrifying. Whereas once, at 40, most people looked forward to another 20-25 years in work, with promotions and a generous pension based on decades of contributions, today their prospects seembleak. Paul Gregg, an economist at the London School of Economics, estimates that most people have one promotion left in them after the age of 40 - and then they are out.
The story goes that in most companies, once you are over 50, you can either be chairman or clean the toilets. Worst affected are older women coming back to work after having children. As chief executives get younger, they are not interested in employing older underlings, whose experience might be threatening or who might prove difficult.
The practice of age discrimination is blatant. Look at any newspaper and you will find advert after advert telling older people they need not apply. Sex discrimination was banned in 1973, but the European Union recently advertised for translators aged under 32. KPMG wants to hire an accountant aged 25-30.
One senior figure in a public relations consultancy now dominated by people under 40 believes older people bring experience and good team skills to a job. But he still feels forced to take young recruits: "We would not take on someone who was attractive and good-looking if they could not do the job. But we are an image-conscious industry. And, given that it can be 10 years before a trainee is able to give credible advice to a chief executive, we need to recruit young people."
Diana Cornish, former managing director of Brook Street, Britain's leading employment services company, summed up most employers' attitudes in a research paper: "Collectively these people would never dream of being offensive to a black person or belittling a woman bus driver. Their prejudice is more widespread, socially acceptable and deadly. They believe that a person's age determines whether they can do a particular job."
But turning the clock back, giving respect - and most important, jobs - back to older people - is going to be hard. Several European countries and the United States outlaw age discrimination: last year a jury in Miami awarded pounds 2.2m of damages in one case. But research published by the Department of Employment has found that such changes in the law have had no conclusive effect in improving the economic activity rates of older workers or their employment prospects.
The problem in Britain seems to be that employers have developed an entrenched fascination with youth, particularly in the expanding creative industries. "The perception is that young people have more energy and drive and cut through the detail," says Ashley Robinson, consultant with MacNeil, a recruitment agency for the public relations industry. "The upbringing of people in their forties is seen as much more structured and dogged. As a result, there is a view that older people are less flexible and used to going in a straight line. People in their thirties seem to be more mercurial, in a positive sense, and prepared to take risks."
These stereotypes are deeply ingrained. Ageism at work is part of a much wider phenomenon, according to Angela Neustatter, author of Look the Demon in the Eye - the Challenge of Mid-Life. "Youth was first deified in the Fifties, when teenagers were invented and youth represented something new and optimistic. And that feeling hasn't faded away. Older people have been wiped out of the picture. So people try to look young, leading to the cult of the gym, the boom in cosmetic surgery, people working harder and harder to avoid the dog barking at their heels. I was part of the group that enjoyed the youth revolution and is now paying the price for setting that agenda."
Jimmy Winterflood knows the problem. He was 50 when he was made redundant, after 27 years, from his job as product manager of a confectionery firm. "No one was interested in someone who had maybe 10 years' work left in them. They wanted someone younger, who would in time fill senior positions."
But he is living proof of the fallacy that old workers are no use. He volunteered to work for British Executive Services Overseas, which specialises in sending skilled middle-aged people to top positions in Third World countries. "I've been all over the world. I'm just back from Bangladesh, where I was sorting out management problems in a biscuit and bread company. Developing countries revere people over 50 who have a lifetime of experience. I would rather give my knowledge away for nothing to someone who appreciates it than sit at home in a country that does not seem to want it."
Demographic changes demand a rethink of ageist prejudices. There are simply not enough young people: a million fewer 16- to 19-year-olds now than a decade ago. By 2031, half the British population will be over 45. Recently 90 large companies, including Marks & Spencer and the Royal Bank of Scotland, agreed to oppose age discrimination.
Yet there is no indication of a waning in the power of the youth cult that has so devalued the contribution of older people. Tony Blair speaks evangelically of the need to make Britain a young country again, a message that hardly chimes with population trends. Equally, the heralding of an enterprise economy and a culture of insecurity seem to be at odds with values associated with age. This is a hostile environment in which youth thrives best.
It may be that we need a cultural shift as great as the post-war dispensation in favour of the young. This would require the baby-boomers to make a historic U-turn and put youth back in its proper place. They would, like Dorian Gray, have to recognise the truth and abandon their own "youthful" self-image which is now so oppressive. Unless they have the courage to do so it is hard to see how society will overcome the prejudice, marginalisation and economic decline that a majority will soon face.Reuse content