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Age discrimination

 

I was recently talking to an Italian colleague who bluntly said that after the age of 35 she felt you no longer exist and are not needed in the workplace. She said a friend of hers was doing a PhD at 43 but was unable to get student discounts for public transport or the cinema, as these are only offered to students under the age of 35. She said that nearly all job adverts stressed they were looking for candidates no older than 35.

In Italy candidates will put their date of birth on a cv, but in the UK the situation is legally different. If an employer turns you down for a job because you are too old or too young, this is ageism in recruitment and is unlawful. Discrimination laws are in place to protect you when you apply for a job as well as when you are working.

Previously an employer could refuse to consider candidates for jobs if they were over 65, but the default retirement age was abolished under the Equality Act 2010 and started to be phased out in April 2011, so this can no longer be used as a justifiable reason.

Employers in the UK cannot include age limits in job adverts and must avoid using words suggesting they are looking for applicants from a particular age group, for example asking for ’10 years’ experience’, ‘enthusiastic young people’, or ‘recent graduates’. They can ask for your date of birth, to check if you are over 18 if necessary, or to check they are attracting a wide range of candidates, but they should keep this separate from the application and must not use it as a factor in giving you a job or not.

In practice, if a company wants to employ someone of a certain age, they will do so, sifting cvs and judging your age by your date of graduation or educational history. So it is difficult to prove discrimination in the recruitment process. If, however, you feel you have a case, you can get a questionnaire from the Home Office website, which you can use to get information from them, so you can decide whether to bring a case against them.

Many employers seem totally oblivious of the laws and the most obvious mistakes are to be found in job adverts, which often contain words or phrases that could be considered ageist. The most dodgy terms would probably be: energetic, dynamic, mature, young, strong, experienced, young spirited,school leaver, recent graduate or newly qualified.

The onus is on recruiters and mature-aged candidates to battle ageism. A possible scenario could be whereby a recruiter has lined up a series of potential candidates for a post and, having ascertained their capabilities, character, potential and degree of experience, one candidate stands out.

However, there’s a problem; he has too much experience and too much grey hair. The recruiter doesn’t mind, he recognises talent, but he also knows his client and the elder candidate would be a no-hoper, so he is left out of the equation; again.

The Huffington Post recently reported on Jim Pawlak, a 48-year-old former Xerox worker, who had been made redundant. In the first 919 days he sent out 908 copies of his cv and was called for fewer than 50 interviews. He has one explanation; age discrimination. “It’s a first to be fired and last to be hired syndrome”, he said.

 

In the US, the unemployment rate for workers 55+ stands at 5.9%, but workers over 55 made up 54% of the long-term unemployed, defined as people out of work for more than 27 weeks. Moreover, older Americans stayed jobless longer, an average of nearly 56 weeks, compared to 37 weeks for younger workers.

 

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), protects people 40 and older from employment discrimination based on age, and applies to both employers and job applicants. Age discrimination now accounts for nearly one-quarter of all complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. An AARP survey found one-third to one-half of baby boomers had experienced age bias in a job search.

 

Pawlak, who lives in a Chicago suburb, worked for 20 years for Xerox, mainly in customer service, before he lost his position in a 2008 layoff. Since then, he’s travelled the job-hunting circuit, picking up freelance or contract work, but nothing on staff. He answers every ad he sees and has learned to be cautious about stating salary expectations. He recalls taking an hour to apply for a position, pausing at the box where it asked for a desire

 

“I decided to go for it and put down a figure that was about three-quarters of what I had been earning”, he said. The automatic email rejection came within 15 minutes. “They saw my salary expectation and bam! – end of their interest in me,” he said.

 

He recently worked for 14 months on a $20 an hour contract and, by all accounts, performed well and was well-liked, but when the position was made full-time, it went to a recent college graduate. “They assumed I wouldn’t want it because of the pay.” The GAO report cite several studies that explain why companies favour younger workers; they typically earn less, employers expect they’ll have less of an impact on healthcare costs and won’t have an issue with a younger boss. Employers also worry that older workers’ technical skills are out of date, and, since they’re obviously closer to retirement, they’ll bail faster.

 

Older Americans who confront that bias will have a tough time pursuing relief. A 2009 Supreme Court decision made it more difficult for older workers to prove claims of illegal bias based on age. In response, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy have introduced the “Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act” — which eight in 10 older voters support, according to the AARP.

 

Meanwhile, some post 50s have experienced ageism not from employers, but co-workers. Lisa Bolivar is a journalist and writer based in Florida. “I’m 52 and look my age,” she said. Nevertheless, she was stunned when a younger colleague at a website where she worked under contract told her quite matter-of-factly that “people like you shouldn’t be here.”

 

“People like me?” Bolivar responded.

“Old people,” said the 20-something.

 

Bolivar, who was embroiled in a pay dispute at the time and ended up leaving the company after nine months, said she never reported the comment to her supervisor or anyone else. Suing isn’t her style, she said, and the comment wasn’t why she left the job. “But it was ageist – absolutely,” she believes.

As they struggle with long-term unemployment, older Americans are doing what they can to get by.

 

An AARP Public Policy Institute report said 69%  of older Americans had slashed expenses; 57%  of workers had tapped savings; 52% delayed medical or dental treatment; 37%  stopped saving for retirement, 35%  used credit cards to pay for daily living expenses and 18%  took distributions from their retirement accounts.

 

Pawlak credits his wife’s job and money-management skills with keeping them financially afloat. By using savings, they have been able to keep their credit pristine and qualified to refinance their house at a lower interest rate. Their 24-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter, works as a grocery clerk and lives with them. “She can’t afford to move out and be on her own,” he says.

 

“We’ve made so many cuts just to make ends meet,” said Pawlak, an amateur photographer who has launched a side business, Pixel Perfect bMemories, which restores and transfers photos, negatives and slides into digital media. “I am in the process of reinventing myself. I have to wonder, at the age of 48, have I become obsolete in the new world order? I really don’t know anymore.”

 

Nigel Phillips

 

 

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