Legislation heading our way from Europe is designed to put an end to blatant age discrimination in the workplace. But there are few signs that employers are in sympathy with its aims, as Anne Bruce reports

One problem is that the government’s preliminary guidance on the impending legislation is nebulous, according to employment experts.

Are you hardworking, hands-on and a good people manager? Do you want a job with responsibility, a decent salary and five weeks paid holiday a year? How about applying to be a store manager then? As long as you are 25 to 35 years old, that is.

Astonishingly, this proviso was one of eight requirements stipulated by a major retailer in a recent magazine advertisement for staff. At the foot of the ad, the retailer claimed to be “an equal opportunities employer” - though in this case it considered young applicants to be more equal than others.

It is not the only company with that policy. Following The Grocer’s exposé of ageism in the food industry last year (Over 40, over the hill, August 23, 2003, p32), we have regularly received letters from readers who claim they have been the victims of discrimination. And the evidence is not only anecdotal: according to the government, six out of 10 employers prefer not to recruit staff over the age of 35.

The discrimination against older people appears to worsen when it comes to more senior positions. In some cases, like the advertisement, the discrimination is blatant - although, it must be emphasised, perfectly legal at the moment. In most, however, it is more insidious and difficult to detect, according to readers who complained to us. Many say they receive standard “thanks, but no thanks” replies when they send in their CVs for vacancies they are well qualified to fill. Others are rejected by recruitment agencies which admit privately their client has put an age range in the job spec.

The good news for older people is that the EU Employment Directive prohibiting age discrimination in employment and vocational training comes into force in the UK on October 1 2006.

The legislation should restore some of the balance in their favour, dealing with a whole spectrum of age-related issues including retirement, age ceilings on graduate training schemes, lower minimum wage rates for younger workers and of course job ads specifying age.

In addition, speculation is mounting that the directive could represent a challenge to the new national minimum wage for 16 to 18-year-olds because a pay rate that is dependent on an employee’s age could be deemed discriminatory.

Owen Warnock, a partner at law firm Eversheds, warns that employers will be responsible for eradicating any sign of age discrimination within their organisations after a full-scale review of personnel policy.

Asking for a new qualification that only younger people had had a chance to gain could be interpreted as a breach of the regulations and employers would be expected to ask for skills instead.

Many have taken no steps to change their employment procedures ahead of the directive, according to Warnock. He says: “2006 is too far on the horizon for most employers. Most have not taken any action yet, they have been waiting for the government to take a lead.”

The DTI initially planned to place regulations before Parliament by the end of this year, giving the industry two years to prepare for the change. But a slip in the directive’s schedule has put back the second detailed consultation to the end of June. However, Warnock warns that retailers and manufacturers need to start planning now for the changes and reminds them that much more than the retirement age - which has been the issue that most media have focused on - will be subject to the new law.

If the threat of legislation doesn’t cut much ice with employers, there is plenty of well-researched evidence showing that ageist policies cost money and are detrimental to business.

The Employers’ Forum on Age, for example, says that the entrenched belief that younger is better because they are more energetic, as well as cheaper to hire and insure, is a misconception. A mixed workforce is to an employer’s long-term benefit. Older employees tend to be more stable, loyal and reliable. They also possess more refined “people skills”, vital in any customer-facing business.

And the government’s Age Positive research shows that there is no difference in the way that older and younger workers respond to training and both are equally capable of development. On top of that, turnover of younger staff is high and managing the churn and its impact on the business is time-consuming and expensive.

In fact, ignoring the potential of older workers costs employers a whopping £16bn a year according to Cabinet Office figures.

In April 2000 it produced a report, Winning the Generation Game: improving opportunities for people aged 50-65 in work and community activity, which stated that the number of people aged between 50 and 65 who were not working had doubled to 2.8 million over the previous 20 years because of leaner firms’ prejudices towards older workers.

The £16bn a year is lost gross domestic product as a result of those over-50s being out of the employment market.