...for management jobs, at any rate. But a wake-up call over ageism is on its way says Anne Bruce

And at Tesco, Fletcher thinks only 7% of its head office staff are over the age of 55.

The British Retail Consortium plans to investigate the issue of age discrimination in retail, because it recognises that the issue is difficult to quantify due to the lack of statistics.

After five years out of work, Mike, a food marketer, held out little hope from his latest job application. But what he discovered when the rejection arrived shocked him.

“The company had returned my CV and on the back of it someone had written in pencil ‘TOO OLD’,” Mike wrote in a letter to The Grocer.

“Officially, they just said that my experience did not meet their requirements.”

Mike, now 48, was just one of a flood of job-hunters who contacted The Grocer to report similar experiences. All were highly experienced in their fields, yet could not find work.

So just how serious is the situation?

On the face of it, the food industry has a positive approach to older staff, with retailers stealing a march on manufacturers. Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury have specific policies to recruit older workers for stores.

For instance, Safeway national resourcing officer Catherine Ward says: “We try to match the workforce in the store to the age profile of the local community.”

Tesco employee relations manager Tony Fletcher says: “We have 2,000 employees over 65. We don’t support a compulsory retirement age.”

However, according to recruitment consultants, age-friendly policies apply only to the lesser-skilled section of the workforce, with older people supplementing their meagre pensions and, at the same time, providing cheap labour.

For managerial positions - particularly sales managers - it is a different story. Tony Aylward, divisional director of recruitment consultancy the Berkeley Scott Group, says that when it comes to recruitment of national account managers, “entrenched opinions dictate that younger is better, as well as cheaper”.

Peter Green, head of consumer practice at the Ellis Fairbank agency, says a client may specify it will not interview anyone over the age of 40, or that job specifications occasionally suggest there is an age limit for any applicant.

“It’s a trade-off between youthful exuberance and stability and track record. Youth is valued in sales because it is associated with dynamism, pace and energy. The career of a 47-year-old applicant for a national account manager position would be seen to be on the wane.”

Their comments are partly borne out by figures from the Office for National Statistics (see table) which show that 29% of 25 to 49-year-olds in food manufacturing are in managerial positions but only 19% of those are over the age of 50.

More damning still was last month’s survey of IGD’s Leading Edge panel of existing and aspiring grocery managers under the age of 35 in which 46% of more than 200 respondents said they believed their employers were reluctant to interview candidates over the age of 50.

Philip Taylor, senior research associate at Cambridge University’s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, says in food retail, positive moves have been made to recruit older staff for less demanding roles - but not for management positions - and employers may be cutting costs by recruiting less experienced, younger managers.

“Older job-hunters must expect a pay cut or to enter the workplace at a lower level,” he says. “Although they outperform younger people in many tasks,they are rated lower.”

Owen Warnock, a partner at law firm Eversheds, believes employers may be unaware that they are discriminating. “Managers are guided by their prejudices,” he says. “But it is often a case of subconscious discrimination.” He adds that many of the victims of age discrimination are those who have not had a normal career progression, for example women who have taken time out to bring up children.

Keith Dennis, Cadbury Trebor Bassett personnel director, agrees the age profile of the food industry is youthful and estimates the average CTB manager is about 40: “I am the oldest on the board, in my late 50s. My successor in this role is in his 30s,” he says.

BRC director general Bill Moyes says. “The biggest demand in retail is for shop floor workers - those jobs are much easier to obtain than management positions.” However, he says: “Given the competition for staff in the job market, I would be surprised if retailers were writing people off due to their age.”

A lot depends on which sector of the industry a job applicant is interested in, whether retailing or food manufacturing. Rachel Krys is head of communications at the Employers’ Forum on Age, which promotes age diversity in the workplace. It has 160 employers on its books, including Sainsbury, Asda, Tesco and Safeway, Cadbury Schweppes and Unilever.

Retailers are becoming sympathetic to hiring older employees for lesser skilled jobs because of staff shortages, says Krys, but manufacturers, to date, are less advanced in their policies.

However, a wake-up call is on the way in the form of impending legislation.

The DTI is consulting on the implementation of the EU Employment Directive, which prohibits implicit or explicit age discrimination in employment and vocational training.

It is also considering whether to abolish the state retirement age or raise it to 70.

The consultation period ends on October 20, regulations are due to be in place by 2005 and the law will be in force by 2006.

Krys says: “Employers will have to make massive changes by 2006, reviewing policies on pensions, unfair dismissal, recruitment selection and promotion.”

Warnock warns that many are unlikely to be able to meet the deadline.

“Most have not taken any action yet; they have waited for the government to take a lead,” he says

The knock-on effects of legislation will be considerable, he says. For instance, employers are likely to be dragged into costly legal actions by older employers who suspect they have missed out on promotion because of their age.

The cost of such cases could drive many smaller businesses into the ground.

In addition, graduate training schemes will be open to all graduates, no matter when they graduated or how old they are. And the legislation will require employers to identify where they may be guilty of discrimination.

But, to conclude, back to Mike and his progress in the jobs market,

Tony Aylward has taken a look at his CV and says it may well be the jumbled presentation of his career history as much as his age that is letting him down.

“Let’s hope a simple redraft can stop potential employers thinking “too old” and instead say, “older and wiser”.