Are We Adequately Addressing Age Discrimination In The Workplace?

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Research from William Fry asks how employers can develop more age-diverse policies and respond to the reality of a workforce that is increasingly pushing out retirement.

Google was recently forced to pay out $11m to jobseekers who alleged age discrimination in its hiring practices.

More than 200 applicants, all of whom were over 40 when they interviewed to join the company, received a share of the settlement, though Google denies that it was unfairly dismissive of older candidates. Instead, the company argues, these candidates failed to demonstrate sufficient technical prowess and weren’t “Googley” enough to successful integrate with the company’s culture.

The tech industry has long been dogged with accusations of ageism, yet the issue has assumed a new level of relevance in recent times as increasing numbers of workers opt to delay taking retirement, be that due to preference or changes to the requirements in their field.

In fact, as many as 61pc of workers believe that they will have to work beyond the age of 66, according to the latest iteration of the Age in the Workplace report released by William Fry.

In the research, William Fry surveyed 1,000 respondents to gauge how Irish businesses are preparing for an inevitably ageing workforce. According to figures provided by the Central Statistics Office, there were as many as 81,600 workers over the age of 65 in the Irish workforce in the first quarter of 2019, up from 78,600 in 2018.

“Improved longevity, higher living costs and delayed receipt of State pension mean that several generations can be found working alongside one another,” according to the report, which was headed up by Catherine O’Flynn and Alicia Compton at William Fry.

Though the majority of those surveyed believe that they will work longer, only 32pc actually want to. The remainder, presumably, see it as a necessary evil.

Furthermore, 61pc of those surveyed believe older workers are inhibited by technological change, which further implies that people’s opinions on an ageing population are, at the very least, mixed.

Age discrimination in action

For many reasons, the people surveyed cannot be blamed for feeling hesitant about the prospect of continuing to work until they are septuagenarians.

Some research has indicated that extending working life policies disproportionately affects women for a myriad of factors. Since reforms to working life policies tend to be tied up with years spent working and encourage private pensions, women lose out.

Women are both more likely to spend less time in the workforce and less likely to have a private pension. There is a higher concentration of women in low-paid employment and women are more likely to leave the workforce to provide unpaid care for family members.

The William Fry report also highlights some examples in recent Irish case law where workers have successfully brought legal action against employers for discriminating based on age.

The report details various rulings from the Irish Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in favour of people who had complaints ranging from having job offers rescinded to being repeatedly passed over for promotions, all due to age. Of the 1,449 equality complaints made to the WRC, some 49pc alleged age discrimination. This represents a sharp increase since 2017, when discrimination on the grounds of age was alleged in only 24pc of equality claims.

One of the main points of contention at the heart of these complaints is the fact that there is no statutory retirement age in Ireland. Employers are permitted to set a retirement age, and often do, but this age must still be “objectively justifiable”.

Yet as the population ages and forced retirement risks skewing the dependency ratio entirely, is compelling people to leave work or locking them out from opportunities after a certain threshold justifiable anymore?

Soft landings

The attitudes towards age in the work force are certainly evolving. Employers are developing more age-diverse policies and initiatives such as return-to-work programmes, ‘soft landing’ programmes that allow employees to gradually phase out of work instead of retiring outright, removing age limits on internships and graduate programmes, and more.

As well as doing this in order to avoid discriminating based on age, skills shortages in certain key areas in both the tech world and beyond are nearly necessitating that enterprises broaden their minds during the talent search.

Still, the research from William Fry makes it clear that the problem of age discrimination is rife and, seemingly, deteriorating. Will the uptake of these kinds of measures lead to some course correction? Time will tell.