Leader comment: Ageism makes no sense as we all live longer

For the sake of the nation, employers need to abandon ageist attitudes to their workforce.

Companies need to find places for older people in their workforce
Companies need to find places for older people in their workforce

“Life begins at 40”, “50 is the new 40”, “you’re only as old as you feel”. If only Britain’s employers believed the numerous sayings designed to offer hope in face of the inexorable march of time.

A new report by MPs warns of the “unacceptable” waste of talent of the million people in the UK who are over the age of 50 and currently unemployed, blaming casual ageism and unconscious bias – as well as straightforward prejudice – for the problem.

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And, have no doubt, this is a serious problem and one that will only grow as we all live longer. The Office for National Statistics has produced a remarkable graph, showing how life expectancy has nearly doubled in past 170 years – a blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years of human history.

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While we are all grateful for this dramatic improvement – achieved because of stunning developments in medicine, such as antibiotics and mass immunisation – it seems clear that it has not been accompanied by a similarly swift change in attitudes towards those of us who are no longer “young”.

The cult of youth in the 1960s – “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who in My Generation – may also have played a part in the perception that people are essentially past it once they hit middle age.

However, in addition to living longer, many of us are looking after ourselves better than in the past and maintaining a more youthful outlook on life. Potential employers might think an older worker would be less willing to take instructions, out of touch with the digital world and more expensive than a younger person who is keen to get on.

But the greater life skills and experience of those who have lived a little should not be overlooked. And many are more internet-savvy than you might think – despite being based on a fictional comic book superhero, the “silver surfer” is no myth.

As the population gets older, we must adapt – there is little choice to do otherwise. Already, it is planned that the state retirement age will increase to 67 for both women and men by 2028. If all those people are to have jobs, employers must comply with the law, making sure they are not guilty of discriminatory practices, and also bring in new measures like the greater use of flexible working hours.

But, perhaps most of all, we need to change entrenched ideas about our undervalued older generation.