Are we living in an ageist society? Do we discriminate against the over 55s through our employment practices, either subconsciously or otherwise?

In this article, Carole Donnelly shares her thoughts on how we can support older people in the workplace and those seeking a return to employment.

Over the last few years, I have started to notice how us older people are represented across a wide variety of areas. I began to question how we treat older workers, and I am starting to believe we may be living in an ‘ageist society,’ where many are starting to believe those over 55 should disappear quietly from the workplace, what do you think?


What if we reviewed the age you retire and you could get your state pension earlier or be offered a more flexible working/pension solution? Would this be something that could aid the economic recovery post pandemic? The ‘privileged’ few, those with a great pension pot or one of those extinct final salary pensions can opt for early retirement at 55. But most of us, alas do not have this kind of pension pot to fall back on. Nor do they have the lucrative consultancy or paid directorships to top up their income, that many at the top of the ladder do.  There is a ticking timebomb pension crisis, and we are all starting to realise that we need to rethink our retirement plans and employers need to rethink their employment offers to us older workers.


We have all seen the headlines and posts about the over 50’/55’s struggling to get back into full time employment following the Covid19 pandemic and we are yet to see the full impact of furlough ending in September. Many job shortages are in roles that those over 50 might not consider or health issues prevent them from taking up. But that doesn’t mean we can be thrown on the scrapheap, does it?


According to the Centre of Ageing Better “ageism is important because it can cause a huge range of harms” this includes employment, housing, health, social care, media & culture as all of these areas are starting to realise, we really do live in an ageist society. Over the last 10 years I have been looking at the impact of ageing in our society and what I am seeing is not pretty. Unlike racism and sexism, ageism is not high on many people’s radar. Unconscious Bias is playing as much a part in this as it does in the racism or white privilege agenda. We make up our minds about a person in the first 7 seconds, especially when it comes to recruitment, is it time to start a real conversation about ageism in the workplace?


A social Enterprise organisation called Restless www.restless.co.uk has a very active page for those over 50 seeking work on Facebook, many posts highlight just how difficult it is to get a new job once made redundant post 55 – I have lived experience of this, when I took redundancy in my late 50’s, I was always the runner up against a much younger candidate. In the end, I went on to set up my own consultancy instead – well if you can’t beat them join them!


I even heard an anecdote that a woman in her late 50’s was in the toilet when the 2 younger women who had been interviewing her came in and were chatting about the last candidate “great CV and interview but imagine employing someone who looks like your Mum?”.  You can guess she stayed in the toilet until they were safely gone, confidence destroyed in one cruel and thoughtless ageist comment.

I remember facing very similar ageist comments in the workplace post 50 and the feeling that I just didn’t fit in with a team where the majority were over 20 years my junior and younger than my own daughter. I’m a youthful over 55 but it still hurt every day and don’t even get me started on the impact of menopause for women in the workplace! That is a whole different issue and worthy of another blog post.


58% of 50-69 year olds thought that UK society is ageist & 55% of all ages thought the UK was ageist in a recent survey conducted by the Centre for Ageing Better  Reframing ageing: Public perceptions of ageing, older age and demographic change | Centre for Ageing Better (ageing-better.org.uk)

The report goes on to say that “many older applicants are frozen out of the job market due to inadequate processes, age bias and a lack of engagement from employers and recruiters – over a third of older workers feel disadvantaged in applying for jobs due to their age”


What can we do about this ageism and how can we educate not only the management/HR but the whole workforce to really value older workers? It is time we started to look at having a full review of the recruitment process and ensure that full training is given to all of those on recruitment panels. We also need to review the recruitment agencies processes where there appears to be an algorithm that detects the over 50’s even if you don’t add your date of birth. I got round this by only adding the last 10 years’ experience and thankfully my degree was as a mature student so that took care of another 15 years. But many are unable to do this, plus in some of the lower paid jobs it is cheaper to employ a younger person, especially if National minimum wage is applied to a role.


I would love to see an ‘Older Working Person Tsar’ for the Midlands and for the West Midlands Combined Authority & other local Councils to lead the way in their recruitment practices. Wales have an Older Peoples’ Commissioner and this needs to be replicated across the UK. However, I recognise that there is a real distinction between those of working age and those who are much older and have many different needs.


As I wrote this the debate about ageism took another turn with a Government Minister being attacked for having the audacity to dance in his 50’s at a nightclub –I was listening to the debate on radio 2 – ageism at its best – if it was just his style of dancing being criticised it might be okay, but it was his right to be in a club enjoying himself that was at the heart of the debate. I’m no fan of his politics but I will defend his right to dance and let his hair down – heaven forbid us over 50’s wanted to have some fun!


Ageism is everywhere and its time we challenged this concept that us ‘oldies’ should be tucked up in bed with a cup of Horlicks once we turn 55! There are over 2.25 million workers over the age of 50 (source Annual Population survey 2017) and this is increasing as the population ages. It really is time to open a debate on ageism and perception of older workers.


So! Where can we start to address this? May I suggest in the workplace lets have some age friendly ambassadors, let’s have some menopause specialist within the workplace, let’s educate the managers in the first instance and bring this ageism into the open and challenge the poor practices that clearly exists.

About Carole Donnelly


Carole Donnelly set up her consultancy (CJD Consultancy) following redundancy in her late 50’s. She specialises in Community Businesses, Social Enterprises business support and the over 50’s.

Carole co-chaired the WMCA Social Economy Taskforce and has led her own social enterprise community business as well as leading on Social Enterprise City in Coventry. Carole is also a double fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs and an awarding winning social entrepreneur as well as being named twice as a WISE 100 women in the social enterprise arena.

Connect with Carole on LinkedIn