A person’s birth certificate tells us nothing about what they can offer an employer and society. Photograph: Jim Wileman
We could soon see the beginning of a new age for older people, as the government launches a consultation on how to bring age discrimination legislation into force.
This is a long-awaited move. The true test of its success will be the extent to which these new laws result in a change in public attitudes so that stereotypes of ageing become as unacceptable as those of race or gender.
To some readers, perhaps, that last sentence will read as politically correct nonsense. Surely, they may argue, ageing is universal and affects our skills and abilities, so is an absolutely valid way of making decisions about someone?
But take a step back in time and revisit the arguments that supported types of discrimination that now are, to most right-thinking people, consigned to a murky past. Wasn’t the idea of giving women free access to the workplace supposed to drive men out of work, and didn’t the argument run that women were only working for pocket money anyway? Weren’t certain jobs supposed to be better suited to one or other gender?
We have seen the same arguments with a different gloss repeated over the last few months with regard to the scrapping of the default retirement age. Older people, opponents argue, would clog up the system and stop younger people getting work. Not having a cut-off point to a working life would lead to employers having to soldier on employing older people who, it was suggested, would clearly be less capable of doing the job than a younger person.
Now read that paragraph again. The argument already seems outdated. Following the outlawing of age discrimination in employment in 2006, today’s consultation covers ageism affecting consumers in the private and public sectors. One area of particular concern to us is ageism in health and social care. Research suggests that health complaints from older people are routinely under-investigated and under-treated. The National Review of Age Discrimination in Health and Social Care commissioned by the Department of Health in 2009 examined poor outcomes for older people and concluded that ageist attitudes were affecting investigation and treatment levels. In too many care situations the care itself is substandard and too often older people are having to struggle to access even basic care. The figures are frightening – for example, nearly 400,000 older people living in care homes have real trouble accessing even a GP.
Age discrimination in society itself can be subtle. Research has shown that the older person will often feel invisible, ignored and patronised. Older people can become isolated and move towards the fringes of our society, but usually this is not through choice. As a society we need to work at bringing older people back to the heart of our communities and challenging the discrimination that can leave them struggling to find a useful role to play.
The treatment of older people by the financial services industry is also unacceptable.
At the moment, it is perfectly legal for an insurer, mortgage provider or bank to turn down a potential customer merely because they have passed a certain birthday. The financial services industry has got to start looking at potential customers in more detail, taking in all the relevant facts, not just the date of birth. And they need to be able to justify their decisions. The 65-plus age group is a significant force within our economy, spending more than £100bn a year, yet Age UK research has shown that many feel shut out of access to products. New research commissioned by Age UK reveals that age is the most widely experienced form of discrimination in Europe. Some 64% of those interviewed in the UK and 44.4% across Europe judge age discrimination as a serious problem.
What we need to do now is to look past the labels of old and young and focus instead on a person’s abilities. Looking only at a birth certificate tells us little about what someone can offer an employer or community and does nothing to encourage older people into the heart of society.
• Michelle Mitchell is charity director for Age UK