When our laws first began to address the question of age discrimination in employment, many years ago, I confess that my view was that perhaps the State was becoming a little over-indulgent. Now with the passing of time, and with the benefit of a few more years under my belt, I am beginning to see that there is a strong argument for not discriminating against a citizen just because they have reached a certain age.
Age discrimination is very real, and more widespread than many of us realise. A recent study in England found that some employers define an older worker as a woman over 35 and a man over 42.
Bearing in mind that the average age profile of our population is steadily getting older, and the fact that the age for entitlement to a pension is being deferred, (meaning that we will all have to work for longer), it becomes very apparent that a very substantial proportion of our population are in the target area for such discrimination.
There is even a developing branch of law relating to the rights of older people called Third Age law. While many people think of age discrimination as relating to older people, the fact is that ageism may involve a young employee as well. Age bias is about the perception that the calendar age of the individual will in some way limit their ability to perform their work responsibilities effectively.
Age discrimination in practice is a process that is intended to keep persons within a given age limit, whether younger or older, from being able to participate in employment, or to advance through promotion within that employment. Discrimination on age grounds is often regarded as being unimportant and acceptable, and not real discrimination when compared with discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.
One of the reasons that this discrimination stays under the radar is because it is silent and unspoken. Typically in discrimination situations an older job candidate will be brought through the motions of the employment selection process not knowing that they hadn’t a chance of success from the start.
Another reason for the lack of public concern about such discrimination is because those who have never suffered discrimination can never really fully understand the devastating effects it can sometimes have, in personal terms and financial terms. it’s effects are very real and for it’s victims, it may mean the difference between having a career or living on social welfare.
Despite the prevalence of such discrimination most people realise, at least when they think about it, that society has a vested interest in helping older people to stay in work for longer. There is an emerging realisation that the skills and experience gained by a lifetimes work are a valuable resource for our society. It is also becoming obvious that our society will require people to take greater responsibility for financing their own old age, especially as people are living longer. Age discrimination law is just one way in which this can be achieved.
In Ireland our first such legislation was introduced in 1998 and this this has been updated by the Equality Act, 2004, which makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment against anyone on a number of grounds, including age. Anyone who has been discriminated against on such grounds may bring a claim to the Equality Tribunal. Such legislation by itself however cannot change an attitude of discrimination. This can only come with a change in perception, and an acknowledgement that it is the person rather than the age that’s important.