Ageism is the most common form of discrimination in the workplace, yet with an ageing population, attitudes need to change to reflect economic and legislative logic, says Duncan Brown

Have you ever been treated, or treated someone, unfairly at work on the basis of age? A CIPD survey in 2003 found that 40% of employees had experienced discrimination and age was by far the commonest cause.

A report on social care by three NHS watchdogs last month concluded that older people in Britain faced "entrenched ageism and patronising and thoughtless attitudes". The conference on Ageing in the Workplace I attended demonstrated we have to tackle similarly entrenched attitudes in the workplace.

Traditional stereotypes of "dozy old buffers" are coming under pressure from two directions. First, the government's proposals outlawing age discrimination went through Parliament at this month, for implementation in October. Unless they can be proven relevant, age limits in, for example, recruitment advertisements will be illegal thereafter.

Second, demographic changes, with dramatically increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates, mean that one of the main priorities for the European Commission and many large employers is to see more of the over-50s in employment for longer.

In the hour that it takes to read The Grocer, your life expectancy will have gone up by 12 minutes, while over the next 15 years the number of 15 to 19-year-olds in the UK will decline by some 400,000.

But are attitudes changing fast enough to reflect this economic and legislative logic?

CIPD and the Chartered Management Institute recently surveyed 2,600 managers across all functions and types of organisation. Since an equivalent survey 10 years ago, we found some improvement. Most managers believed age is irrelevant to ability, which many research studies incidentally have demonstrated. The numbers who had been passed over for promotion because they were too old has been halved.

Yet this was still a quarter of the sample and 22% admitted having been unduly influenced by age when recruiting staff. Three-quarters of companies retain an age limit on their graduate recruitment schemes. Only 7% targeted older workers in their recruitment activities.

Older workers in the survey got less training and were perceived to be weak on technology, slower to learn and less ambitious. Yet as a 77-year-old delegate at the Help the Aged conference, who had just been offered a new job, put it, "you're old the day you stop learning".

Being "old" is an attitude, not a fact, and on average managers felt you became elderly at the 57, compared with 51 a decade ago. So how do we continue to change these negative stereotypes?

The CIPD's guide, The Challenge of the Age, recommends a number of steps. First, audit your employment policies and remove any age references. Then monitor the age profile of your workforce and gather evidence on the benefits of age diversity. At Asda, which has a policy of being the best retail employer for the over-50s, the turnover and absence rates are half those of younger employees.

Second, address common skill shortages by widening the pool you recruit from and taking account of a broader range of qualities, which a majority of employers in our survey are now doing. Centrica, for example, has attracted the over-50s to train as gas maintenance technicians.

Third, introduce more careers and training support for older employees, which three-quarters of our survey sample feel is essential in the future. Make better use of older workers' experience, for example in mentoring and coaching younger staff.

Fourth, provide greater work, reward and pension flexibility. This month's "A" day tax changes mean that you can now draw a pension and an income from the same employer. Some 25% of managers in our survey felt that flexible pension arrangements would encourage them to work beyond their normal retirement age.

The ability to continue working with reduced hours was seen as the most attractive option, and there is evidence that those continuing to work on this basis live longer than those who retire early.

The late conductor Sir Georg Solti was asked at the age of 80 what his greatest performance had been. He replied it was going to be tomorrow night's. Employers can no longer afford to consign their talented Sir Georgs to the employment scrap-heap. Start making age diversity work now, or it could work against your organisation and you.

Duncan Brown is assistant director general, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development