Despite the recent decision by the European Court of Justice to refer the Heyday legal challenge to the default retirement age (DRA) back to the High Court, many commentators believe it is just a matter of time before the DRA is scrapped.
That is also the opinion of the dedicated and passionate age campaigner Baroness Sally Greengross. She, perhaps more than any other person in the political arena, is best placed to talk about the twin issues of age and the workplace.
Before entering the Lords in 2000 as an independent peer she had been director-general of Age Concern for 13 years. She helped establish groups including Action on Elder Abuse and the Employers Forum on Age, and is currently chief executive of the International Longevity Centre, a charity that examines the implications of demographic change.
Greengross, well into her 70s and as active as ever, firmly believes the DRA – which allows employers to retire someone at the age of 65 – is a blot on the equalities landscape.
“Age is the most unreliable indicator of someone’s capacity or potential to do a job,” she told Personnel Today.
“Some people can be past their prime at 35 others are innovative and competent when they are at an advanced age. It’s unfair, unreliable and damaging to judge people on their birthdays.”
She stopped short of branding the UK ‘institutionally ageist’, but said attitudes in the workplace, and in wider society, must change.
“I’m old enough to remember when the law was changed on race and the horrid notices outside flats saying ‘no blacks’,” she said. “The minute the law changed people stopped doing that, but it didn’t change their racist attitudes straight away. There is always a time lag between legislation and culture change.”
And she insisted that employer groups like the CBI, which has argued strongly for the government to retain the DRA, have got it wrong.
“I accept there are difficulties [in not keeping the retirement age], and that it’s not easy for organisations to adapt. But the DRA is an excuse for lazy management the amateur approach is letting someone coast towards retirement and then letting them go,” she said. “It’s an out-of-date approach in today’s world. There needs to be greater equality.”
While ditching the retirement age will inevitably lead to accusations of older employees blocking the way for younger colleagues, Greengross said it was up to HR teams to innovate and solve that dilemma.
“I don’t want to see young people denied jobs, I want to see the best person doing a job – and sometimes that will be the older person,” she said. “[Employers must] train managers to be able to assess someone on their competence and ability, and not be afraid of doing that throughout their career.
“You don’t have to always get rid of people if they can’t do the job they started doing, they should be diverted to other roles, and that is beginning to happen.”
Momentum for the campaign to scrap the DRA is building. In January, Greengross secured a debate in the House of Lords to highlight the issue, which received cross-party support from a number of peers. Speaking on behalf of the government, Lord Carter admitted that the DRA had not enjoyed universal support when introduced three years ago.
There are also reports of a Cabinet split over the right to stay in work past the age of 65, with some ministers pushing for the forthcoming Equality Bill to include measures to ditch the DRA.
The Labour government has committed to reviewing the DRA in 2011, and that remains its stance. However, a shift in power after the next general election might result in the DRA being scrapped, with rumours that shadow business secretary Ken Clarke (aged 68) is not a fan.
Whatever the outcome, Greengross believes it is fundamentally wrong that the UK has ageism legislation that, inexplicably, permits a form of age discrimination.
“I hope very much the government will get rid of the DRA and have a much more flexible approach,” she said.
“What the UK needs is to benefit from people’s skills. More than ever, the talent and skills of workers are necessary to overcome the current economic difficulties.”
CV – Baroness Greengross
2006-present Commissioner, Equality & Human Rights Commission
2004 Chief executive, International Longevity Centre UK
2003 Awarded OBE
2000 Independent peer, House of Lords
1987-2000 Director-general, Age Concern
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