A 35-year-old PC sales man went to a lawyer claiming he had been sacked for being too old. It sounds like the start of a taproom tall tale, except that in this case it's true. The salesman had been made redundant and someone else had been recruited in his place.
The lawyer was Philip Winter-Taylor, who specialises in employment law. 'The man said he had given the firm his best sales years when he was in his late 20s and early 30s. He regards his earning potential as a lot lower now that he is 35,' says Winter-Taylor.
Ageism (age discrimination) is commonplace throughout British business, but it is especially acute in IT which is perceived as being a young person's field. According to the Computer Services and Software Association (CSSA), the average age of member companies' employees is just 27.
The age at which prejudice starts to bite is getting younger, and now stands as low as 35 to 40, especially in sales and technical jobs. It may be even lower for women, since women are regarded as older than men of the same age.
There are currently no laws against ageism. Labour MP David Winnick's private member's bill to outlaw age limits in job advertisements was talked out in February. But the Labour Party has pledged legislation similar to that which covers race and sex discrimination. And with the possibility of a Labour government next year, it would pay for employers to consider where they stand.
Ageism can manifest itself in one of three ways: not recruiting older people; not looking after those you have; and not keeping them when the workforce needs to be cut.
The days are gone when recruitment ads cried out for people under 25 with 10 years' experience. In 63 pages of recruitment ads in a recent issue of Computing, not one quoted an age limit, and just three ads asked for young or fairly young people. This may be little more than an excrescence of political correctness by image-conscious high-tech employers. Some still use age to reduce a mountain of CVs to reasonable proportions before drawing up interview shortlists, and others have strong prejudices.
'Last month I sent someone to an interview for a pre-sales support job,' says Rob Reason of recruitment consultancy Reason International. 'They said his CV looked good, but he was 37 and they were only interested in people under 30.' In many cases, age discrimination may be accidental. In a survey of 125 firms, Richard Worsley, director of the Carnegie Third Age Programme, found that more than 90 per cent had age on their equal opportunities agenda. 'Ageism stems from a series of unconscious things. I don't think it's always malicious,' he says.
In a young industry, young managers are inclined to recruit kindred spirits. 'One of the problems is young personnel departments which tend to recruit people in their own image,' says Dave Philpotts, chairman of Distributed Technology Management Group, an independent forum for PC managers.
As senior managers get younger, sometimes under 30, they may feel embarrassed about managing older people. 'There exists a mind-set that says: I don't want someone 20 years older reporting to me,' says David Higgins, MD at recruitment specialist Harvey Nash. Oddly enough, the corollary to that - older people are uncomfortable working for a younger boss - is seldom true.
Some employers see older people as a poor long-term investment. In fact they tend to stay longer in jobs than people in their 20s who jump ship every few years to further their careers. Perhaps the young do this because they know their chances of advancement will halt once they reach 35.
Some young companies prefer to pay smaller salaries topped up with bonuses, which they argue do not suit older people with financial responsibilities. Then there is the perception that older people have higher salary expectations and more ample lifestyles, or that there must be something wrong if they don't. 'You won't get a 40-year-old working for u20,000, and if you do, you have to wonder why,' says Higgins.
The answer may be perfectly innocuous. With grown children and a working spouse, they may be more interested in job satisfaction than money - particularly if they took early retirement with pension benefits or a lump sum in the bank. And if they don't have the luxury of a second income or redundancy payment, they may be even less fussy.
Barry Lister is 51 and has applied for more than 400 jobs since he was made redundant in 1991. 'If you are unemployed, the only thing you are interested in is getting a job, not salary, motivation or career prospects,' he says. 'I don't know where I shall be financially in three years' time because things are getting worse.' The older you are the longer you are likely to be out of work. And the longer you are unemployed, the more out-of-date your knowledge becomes.
'The pace of change is accelerating,' says Tony Lewis, CSSA executive director. 'The longer you're off the roundabout, the faster it goes and the longer it takes to get back on.' After as little as six months, rejoining the rat race can be difficult, unless you have kept your knowledge up-to-date by reading journals or doing contract work.
It is assumed that older IT specialists know about mainframes and very little else. The idea of wrinkly ex-IT managers boning up on Windows NT or the intranet might seem laughable to the callow youths who have replaced them, but this is yet another myth. Research has shown that old IT dogs can learn new tricks as readily as young ones. The myth persists and largely accounts for the second manifestation of ageism in IT: failure to capitalise on the abilities and potential of older staff.
According to Worsley, nine out of 10 people aged over 50 say they cannot expect to receive any training in any one year. This flies in the face of current management thinking, says Dianah Worman, correct policy adviser on equal opportunities at the Institute of Personnel Development. 'We are into the mode of continual professional development and learning. We need to build on people's existing skills and develop them still further.' Of course, it is argued, older people are too set in their ways and don't want to learn. But this, too, is being challenged. 'There is a lot of lip service paid to retraining, but I don't think we make enough use of it,' says Philpotts, aged 46. 'I used to be a programmer, and I'd happily retrain as a Visual Basic programmer if that's what the business needed.' There is little evidence of discrimination against older people in rates of pay. But their promotion prospects may be less rosy, and they may be summarily dismissed if it is felt they are not keeping up. 'What tends to happen is that a salesman is sacked when he loses a contract,' says Winter-Taylor. 'If anyone is going to do this, it is dealers and resellers, because they have to move so quickly to adapt to the market.' Sacking someone for losing a contract is illegal, unless you have gone through the proper procedures, such as written warnings, and have given them the chance to rectify the situation.
The crux of the problem, says Worsley, is that employers no longer recognise the idea of a career. They want to cherry-pick people with exactly the experience and age profile they want, rather than finding loyal individuals and helping them develop the right skills. This, incidentally, is as much a problem for school and college leavers as for older workers.
This partly explains why older workers are usually the first to go when restructuring causes job cuts. They are also more amenable to voluntary redundancy, and many firms think it kinder to pension off as many greybeards as possible. 'This is a mistake,' says Worman. 'It is dangerous because not only are you losing a lot of skill, but your corporate memory goes with it.' These are the people who can tell the tyros that their latest bright idea was tried 10 years ago and failed.
Some superannuated IT specialists abandon the idea of a conventional career and go into contract work, where age is no barrier. 'Companies want a contractor to come in and do a specific job for three, six or 12 months,' says Simon Wassall, contracts division manager at Harvey Nash. 'They don't care whether they're 55. They just want the right skills.' This is even true of young companies which would not recruit older permanent staff.
Other oldies go into training and consultancy, where their grey hair lends them an air of authority rather than senility. But many are lost to the IT industry altogether. Jackie Jacobs of Forties People, an employment agency for the over 40s, has seen many IT specialists forced to change careers or take low-grade IT jobs like data entry. 'It is such a waste of good skills,' she says. No wonder the IT industry complains of a constant skills shortage.
Top tips for older whippersnappers
Here are some suggestions for employers:
- A lot of ageism is unconscious, so begin by acknowledging that a problem might exist.
- Analyse what your company does on recruitment, promotion, pay scales and training.
- Have a formal policy on ageism, just as you would on race and sex discrimination.
- Ensure senior managers set a good example.
- Consider older people as individuals, not as an undifferentiated group.
- Plot the age profile of the firm and see where you will be in five or 10 years.
Here are some suggestions for older people to follow:
- Don't accept the stereotype. Older people can be their own worst enemies. Many believe they are too old to learn or compete, just like their employers do.
- Keep your skills up to date, especially knowledge of leading-edge technology.
- Write a positive CV, but don't omit your age or lie about it in order to get an interview.
- Ignore age limits or preferences in advertisements.
- It's much easier to find a new job while still in employment, so start looking early.
- If unemployed, take part-time or contract work rather than stay on the shelf.
It's an age-old problem
On April 15 the Institute of Management published the results of a survey of more than 1,600 managers across a range of disciplines. It revealed that while most oppose ageism in theory, many continue to practise it.
- 66 per cent of respondents support the introduction of comprehensive age legislation to protect both young and older workers.
- 70 per cent say age limits should be banned from recruitment advertisements.
- 85 per cent say employers should treat age as an equal opportunities issue.
- 44 per cent of managers over 40 have experienced age discrimination.
- 55 per cent of respondents use age as a criterion in recruitment.
- 33 per cent use it as a criterion in redundancy.
- 25 per cent use it as a criterion in promotion.
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