There are worse injustices than 'ageism'

It makes sense for companies to keep mixed-age workforces, but not at the expense of jobs for the young
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The Independent Online
Why, only a month ago, writing an updated version of Gulliver's aged Struldbruggs, I warned of the inevitable rise of our own gerontocracy. I predicted we would soon see a grey-power putsch, but I did not expect my words to be followed by action quite so soon. For today sees the launch of a major campaign to outlaw ageism. The Employers Forum on Age will unfurl its banners with the aid of Howard Davies, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and other assorted illuminati of industry. They want to change the hearts and minds of employers, encourage them to employ the over-fifties, and some want a legal ban on discrimination by age - a policy Labour is firmly committed to.

This is the apotheosis of the monstrous post-war baby-bulge generation. All our lives we have swept all before us with the sheer bulk of our buying power. It started in the very cradle - wasn't the NHS created in order to give birth to us and keep us alive longer than ever? When we were teenagers, all of society had to undergo our personal teenage rebellion with us. Now as our half century hoves into view, here we come! No-one is going to early-retire us forcibly, oh no. We intend to keep rocking and rolling, shaking and moving until we drop.

Today the new Employers Forum on Age will present a moving case. They estimate some one million over-fifties are looking for jobs but with little success. In 1975 almost all men aged 55-65 were in work: last year that figure was down to just 60 per cent.

Most organisations set out on an orgy of downsizing during the recent recession - promoted by those pernicious kwik- fixers, the management consultants. They were the hit men who came in for a couple of weeks to shoot down short-term costs and get the hell out with very fat cheques before any consequences came home to roost. Down-sizing accelerated the rate at which the over-fifties were defenestrated into early-retirement. The worst case has been the finance industry, where 120,000 jobs have been lost since 1990, with an estimated 155,000 still to come by the year 2000. "There is virtually no one left in the industry over 50," says BIFU, the finance union.

The Employers Forum has salutatory exaples of where it went too far - where no-one with experience was left and companies lost their memories. The skills shortage was worsened by this wanton jettisoning of experienced older workers.

Some employers are realising their mistake: Nationwide Building Society, which recently merged with Anglia, "rationalised" its workforce and rid itself of all its over-fifties. "But research has shown that certain groups of customers prefer to be served by mature staff, who have both key skills and experience," they found. So now they have set about recruiting older people again.

Glaxo Wellcome found that employing the brightest and best young graduates with the freshest research background was not enough. They also needed experienced people who had seen past products through from research to delivery - older people who would "get on with the real job in hand", without jostling for the boardroom. WH Smith found that workers in their twenties had a four times higher turnover than older workers, and it was costing them pounds 2,500 a time to recruit and train each one. Now they try to hire older workers who stay longer.

Early retirement can look like an attractive option to a 50-year-old without promotion prospects. If he is earning, say, pounds 30,000, he might be offered a pounds 30,000 lump sum, plus a pounds 15,000-a-year inflation-linked pension. He pays off the rest of his mortgage and sets off confidently to find another job. It need not pay as much, but just something to bring in a bit and keep him busy. No chance.

No one wants him, with all his experience, even at a cheaper rate. Young managers prefer not to supervise older people, who remind them of their parents and undermine their sense of authority. In any case, they find older people boring, incomprehensible and not fun to have around. Prejudice runs deep.

Now it must make sense for companies to keep a mixed-age workforce. They need that continuity and memory, and all the foresight that comes from remembering past disasters. But that is something employers will discover by trial and error - or maybe with the help of a new wave of mega-expensive management consultants charged with the task of putting right what they put wrong.

But what of the concept of "ageism" - and a whole new panoply of discrimination law, with accompanying tribunals? Is failure to employ an older person really as pernicious as discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or disability? I think not. True, you can no more help your age than your colour. But you have had your turn at being young, and they will have their turn at being old.

It is sad for fit 50-year-olds to find themselves on the scrap heap. But the chances are you have a home, your children are grown, you have a small income and your status as an ex-whatever-you-were gives you some continuing identity. Retirement is respectable and life is full of enjoyable and useful things to do outside the world of paid work. Sad, but not calamitous. Gangs of alienated unemployed 50-year-olds do not roam the streets mugging old ladies and spray-painting their tags on bus shelters.

Compare the fate of the oldies with the young who can't get their first job: even those with qualifications find it hard. They have nothing, lingering on in a perpetual adolescent limbo without status or meaning. In allocating scarce jobs, these desperate cases are in greater need than the early retired. The Labour Force Survey lists the unemployed - registered or not - who have sought work in the last month: 16- to 19-year- olds have a 17.1 per cent unemployment rate. Fifty- to 64-year-olds have only a 7 per cent rate.

Of course, employment is not a zero sum game. The job offered to a 50- year-old office worker would not necessarily go to an inner-city kid with a reading age of seven. Those campaigning for the rights of older workers say, aggrieved, that there is no reason why we should not care about the job prospects of both the young and the old. Why choose? But enforcing laws - or even persuading and inducing employers to retain older workers - must affect the number of jobs for the young.

It is a fine (and rarish) sight to see the best of British industry on parade for a good cause. But is the right of the bulge-baby generation to have-it-all-for-ever the best way for these great and good industrialists to expend their precious energies and sympathies?