The government has finally realised that ageism in the workplace is unacceptable. Better late than never, says Shaun D'Arcy.
Age discrimination in employment and training will be unlawful in the UK by the end of 2006.
Welcome news? Not to the hundreds of employers who fear an avalanche of industrial tribunals, nor to the thousands of older workers worried about being made to work until the age of 70.
There is much disturbing news for organisations and individuals in the government's Age Consultation document, and there are many criticisms for the government's wider failure to counter ageism in the workplace. But at least ageism has finally surfaced as a serious topic.
The sad thing is how long it took to arrive at this point and how badly prepared most organisations are for the consequences of impending legislation
The facts speak for themselves. Help the Aged research revealed that 10% of companies in the UK employ no staff over 50, and that 90% of older people feel discriminated against by employers.
Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that workers now consider age to be the number one barrier to finding employment.
And you need look no further than the IT industry to see how bad the problem is. A 2001 survey of 1,400 professionals in IT, published by the Employers' Forum on Age found that nearly 66% feared they would be unable to get a job once they were 45.
So why has the government acted now? Under an EC directive released in October 2000, the government must introduce a framework of equality in the workplace by October 2006.
It seems clear the UK is responding out of necessity rather than enlightenment. Although we have the Age Positive Campaign to highlight the benefits of an age-diverse workforce, the voluntary Code of Practice on Age Diversity is ignored by 68% of employers. Australia, New Zealand and Ireland already have laws to combat age discrimination and the US has had legislation since 1967.
However, this change is better late than never - particularly when, by the government's own estimate, ageism is costing the country £16bn a year.
Employers need to face up to reality. By 2010, 40% of workers will be over 45, and 16- to 17-year-olds will make up just 17% of the workforce. Quite simply, ageism is a luxury that companies can no longer afford - and not just in the demographic sense.
Offending companies may be liable to uncapped penalties under the new legislation, which will also affect every other aspect of employment practice, including recruitment, selection, training, development, redundancy and retirement.
But change should not just be driven by threats of legal action. Older workers can offer more reliability, a sounder work ethic and a wealth of practical experience as well as the energy, skills and potential usually attributed to younger workers. The only problem is the business case is easily swamped by inaccurate, outdated and inappropriate stereotypes.
The result is a cruel waste of human talent. A survey by MaturityWorks demonstrated how ageism is creating a community of frustrated, depressed and anxious older people. Of those interviewed, 79% claimed to be victims of ageism, 53% believed it made them a target for redundancy and 31% said it had affected their marriages.
We still have a long way to go. The biggest obstacle will be removing the often unspoken beliefs that sustain ageist practices. Change will happen, but for many of the talented workers whose lives and careers have already been blighted by ageism, that change will come too late.
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Shaun D'Arcy is a founding partner of online recruitment service MaturityWorks.co.uk