Ageism; the Final Workplace Taboo?

Discrimination has always been a factor of society. Although charities, high profile figures, and legislative amendments have done a lot to change outward prejudice, implicit discrimination still exists today. Employment and the workforce is a prime example of this. Explicit discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, and ethnicity seem to have been tackled – at least on the surface – but one area that has majorly been ignored is ageism in the workplace.[pullquote]Laws do not currently exist to prevent workers from being forced out of their jobs once they hit a certain age. It isn’t permitted to happen for any other reason, so why should a date of birth be any different?[/pullquote]

An employee could not be dismissed after revealing they practice a certain religion. Nor should this happen if an employee is from a different culture. Such blatant discrimination is not only frowned upon and socially unacceptable, but it is also illegal. However, the same laws do not currently exist to prevent workers from being forced out of their jobs once they hit a certain age. It isn’t permitted to happen for any other reason, so why should a date of birth be any different?

Unfortunately, some companies do terminate their employees’ contracts based on how old they are. Last week, Dunnes Stores hit the headlines for this exact reason. Security manager at a Belfast branch of the store, Gloria Dunbar, believes she lost her job because of her age.

Gloria Dunbar -
Gloria Dunbar

Dunbar had been a staff employee of the company up until her 60th birthday when she was placed on a series of fixed term renewable contracts. Three years later her employment was terminated. She told BBC News NI that she was devastated to lose her job.

I live on my own and I had no other income. The following week I got another letter to say that my retirement date was still the 2nd of December. I was losing my job the day of my birthday and four weeks before Christmas.

Dunbar filed a case against her former employer and was supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), who have stated that this is an important issue in today’s employment environment. The Commission said that “this case highlights the issue of the rights of employees like Gloria to work on and to discuss their retirement needs with their employer.” Despite having always informed her employer that she wanted, and needed, to work until she was 65, Dunnes Stores refused to take Dunbar’s request into consideration.

Anne Ferris TD -
Anne Ferris TD

However, as Labour TD Anne Ferris pointed out, much more than a verbal agreement is necessary. Last month, Ferris tabled a new bill in the Oireachtas seeking to introduce a voluntary system of retirement to replace the current compulsory retirement age.

The proposal comes under the Employment Equality Bill, and aims to abolish mandatory retirement ages for people who are able and willing to continue working. The proposal would therefore challenge the problem that arises in many workplaces across the country, whereby people attaining a certain fixed age – be it 60 or 65 – are compelled to retire, often against their will.

Ferris stressed that there shouldn’t be a fear of older employees in the workplace, and added that in most cases their experience is invaluable.

In a public sector that has already lost a disproportionately high percentage of experienced employers due to voluntary early retirement, we simply cannot afford to be pushing out the remaining experienced employees against their will. We need more young people to help run our public services, but we also need older experienced people to mentor them.

Justin Moran of Age Action Ireland echoes Ferris’s concerns. When I asked him about mandatory retirement ages, he said that “we need to look at older workers as making valuable contributions to the economy; including using their skills, experience and wisdom to train younger and newer employees.” Moran also rejected the notion that mandatory retirement is necessary in facilitating youth employment, stating that international reports from the World Labour Research Insitutute and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have proven the contrary.

Dunnes Stores -

Moran welcomed Deputy Ferris’s bill, claiming that it would “bring Ireland into line with Britain, who abolished a mandatory retirement age many years ago.”

When asked whether he felt older people were discriminated against for their skills and abilties, he said there was “absolutely” a taboo surrounding the issue.

There also exists very false perceptions of older people as ‘not up to date,’ and (the idea) that huge amounts of money would be needed to invest in training (…) That all goes back to ageism, and a false perception of older people who have a great deal to contribute.

Referring to the case of Dunnes Stores worker Gloria Dunbar, Moran said that the passing of the proposed bill would eliminate the need for older people to take such cases. An alternative amendment has been proposed by the government, which “seems to suggest that discrimination on the grounds of age can be justified if it achieves a legitimate aim, but we at Age Action would argue very strongly that there is not a legitimate aim that justifies age discrimination.”[pullquote]If the employee is fit, able, and willing to continue working, then why should they be denied that chance to contribute?[/pullquote]

During the debate on Deputy Ferris’s bill – which has now been referred to the Oireacthas justice committee for further consideration – it was pointed out that some of the most high profile people in politics, religion, music, arts and culture are over the retirement age.

Tánaiste Joan Burton, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, President Michael D. Higgins, The Queen and Pope Francis to name but a few. If people of retirement age are able to hold some of the highest offices in the country, and be some of the most prominent figures in the world, then surely this should be the case for any other job? If the employee is fit, able, and willing to continue working, then why should they be denied that chance to contribute?

The Queen -
The Queen, aged 89

Moran also stressed that “the real problem in terms of ageing issues is that there is literally nobody planning for an ageing society and the changes in demographics. Unless decisions are made now, there will be severe problems in the future.”

For many, continuing to work past retirement age is a necessity for financial reasons. While some may choose to do it for their own well-being, others will simply continue to plan their working life around a retirement age of 65. With better living standards, healthcare, and people living longer, this problem was always going to arise at some point. An ageing population not only means a longer life – it means a long working life too.

The important factor that has to change, however, is the element of choice. No employee should ever be forced from a job they either need or want simply because they are deemed too old.

The sooner the government and employers realise this, and give older people the opportunities and respect they deserve, the better.

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Ben Bichall/PA Wire