With the end of the Default Retirement Age gaining much attention over the weekend, 1 October 2011 also marked another, perhaps less newsworthy, milestone – it was the fifth anniversary of the implementation of the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations.
The regulations made age discrimination in employment illegal, and gave workers aged 65+ rights regarding unfair dismissal and redundancy.
It was an attempt to make a clear statement against age discrimination, but one which failed because of a huge anomaly contained within it.
As well as the regulations’ good points, they also included a new policy – the Default Retirement Age – which allowed employers to forcibly retire people aged 65 and above for no reason other than their age.
What impact have the Regulations had?
The short answer is that there has been only a small improvement in organisational policies, which is disappointing considering the fanfare raised at the regulations’ time of introduction, and the attention received since then.
While this is particularly difficult for the people affected, it’s doubly a shame because there’s a strong business case against discriminating and by failing to adapt, employers are ultimately harming themselves too.
We believe the lack of progress has been exacerbated by the existence of the Default Retirement Age, which has effectively given employers a ‘get out of jail free’ card – they can always rely on forcing someone out at 65, so don’t need to make a substantial effort in the meantime.
Some areas of improvement
But it’s not all doom and gloom – on the surface at least. There are some parts of the employment process where employer practice does seem to have improved.
Chart 1 below shows that some parts of the recruitment process have become more age neutral.
Positives include a significant drop in employers asking for age during the recruitment process; while fewer employers now use length of service when setting organisational pay levels, shown by Chart 1.
There has also been an improvement in employer behaviour when making redundancy selections. As shown by Chart 2 (below), fewer now use age or length or service as a criteria than pre-regulations, which is good for both older and younger workers.
Worryingly, however, there has been no change in the proportion of employers who still have a maximum recruitment age.
Furthermore, on a macro-economic level the Regulations have had no impact on 65+ employment rates, while there is no evidence businesses have suffered any negative consequences as a result, in spite of initial fears prior to 2006.
Official figures and the whole truth
However, we still believe there is a lot of ageist behaviour and discrimination that is not being picked up in the official figures.
It’s possible an element of ‘researcher bias’ exists, where the people being surveyed are economical with the truth, and anecdotally we still hear of a great many people who are being discriminated against on grounds of age.
Sadly it’s all too easy, for example, to reject someone for a job on grounds of their age without anyone being able to prove it.
Hopefully the end of the DRA will precipitate a cultural change towards a more positive view of older workers, but there remains a very long way to go.