Age discrimination - Ageism: on the sharp end

Four accountants tell Beth Holmes about their experiences of age discrimination in the jobs market.
Martin Lloyd-Penny, 53

After training as an accountant in Manchester, Martin stayed in the area and worked for BDO Stoy Hayward until he reached his early 30s. Over the next decade he held a number of finance director roles.

In the late 1990s, though, he fancied a change, because 'after 10 or 12 years as an FD, I had been round the block a few times.

'It got to the stage where I thought I could do better on my own. I did consulting for six years for businesses like NatWest and Prudential, working on procurement-based reviews and re-engineering processes; taking costs out and so on. I had a very successful time, but the problem with being on your own is that you're only as good as your last job.'

He got the opportunity to become involved with a biotech company in Nottingham which, he admits, was 'in retrospect not the best decision. Money ran out, and we called it a day.' By 2003 he was running an internet print management business, but differences of opinion with another shareholder meant one of them had to bow out. So he was jobless.

'This time last year I needed to get myself back into earning a living.

I thought: "I shouldn't have any difficulty, with my experience. I'm not backwards in coming forwards and I've got some good contacts".'

But it wasn't Martin's contacts that proved to be the problem. It was the first port of call for anyone looking for a job - the recruitment agencies.

'The larger agencies are of a different generation and find it difficult to relate to someone of my age and experience. I started to feel that they were talking a different language. I'd been protected from this because I'd always been successful and for the first time I thought: "Bloody hell, this isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be".

'When you get into your 50s there is a clear cut off, and a perception that, if you're an employer, the older accountants will be more expensive or have aspirations beyond what you want to offer, and they are not technically up to date.'

Martin accepts that some of the blame lies with the older generation of accountants if they have not done enough to make themselves employable.

'There are a lot of older accountants who don't do themselves any favours by the way they present themselves or get themselves up to date.'

Working for less

Controversially, he believes that many more mature accountants would be prepared to work for less money than younger, aspiring employees. 'I went to agencies and said I was prepared to accept work for less money,' he says. 'I don't need the status or the money. The standard response from the companies to the employers was that the client said I was overqualified, so why would they do it? But by doing so, they were pushing their prejudice onto me. I got frustrated and disillusioned that there was nothing on offer despite the fact I was prepared to travel anywhere, do interim work, and work for flexible money.'

Although now in work, and so aggravated by his experiences that he set up a website for mature accountants (, the future is a concern, if not for him, then for a generation of ageing accountants.

'There is a pensions timebomb,' says Martin. 'In the next 20 years, we'll see the result of the fact that we've got middle class people who have enjoyed well-paid employment who will be destitute, with final salary schemes becoming extinct. The government is pushing the pensionable age upwards, so it's imperative to keep working longer to fund retirement.

On the one hand you've got that, but on the other hand it is quite clear that it's harder to find work when you get past 50.'

Peter Weeks, 55

Peter Weeks qualified with CIMA in 1981. His early career was in management consultancy at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in the UK and South Africa doing mainly systems work along with more general consultancy. He then worked in senior IT management and IT strategy roles in the paper industry, in financial services and in science publishing.

Three years ago Peter was made redundant from the science publisher where he had been for nine years and, 'after a bit of a battle to find another job', he now works for Business West, the local Business Link for Bristol and Bath, as adviser to small businesses. He is also non-executive finance director and trustee of a local education and skills, not-for-profit organisation Learning South West.

That 'battle' Peter refers to was, again, not with potential employers, but with the recruitment agencies.

'I met with blatant shameless ageism in the recruitment marketplace when job-hunting two years ago. Many job advertisements - perhaps inadvertently - are discriminatory on age, using terms like "young", "hungry", "newly qualified", "age range 25-32", "ideally two to four years PQE". In two particular situations with recruitment agencies I met the criteria for the job only to find that my age then came into play.

'One recruiter said to me on the phone something like: "I'm sorry, you more than meet the experience for the job and I'm sure you could do it fine, but I know my client is expecting to see only young candidates; it's more than my job's worth for me to put someone over 50 on the shortlist".

The other recruiter, with whom I was having a good conversation along the lines of: "The client wants someone with three year's experience"… well, I have six year's experience of that plus another two year's related experience… he then stopped, changed his tone of voice and asked: "How old are you?" The conversation ended soon after.'

New legislation

Peter is surprised at the lack of knowledge about the new age discrimination legislation (see p43). 'With some notable exceptions, most employers and recruitment agencies that I know are not aware how (or even that) the law will change in October 2006 to outlaw age discrimination at work. I'm old enough to remember the new law on sex discrimination in 1975 and people saying: "It' won't come, nothing will really change, we'll get round it somehow". And I admit I was among perhaps the majority then who felt that changing the law wouldn't change attitudes at large. But it has done. Thirty years later no-one really thinks discriminating against women at work is right, good, practical or sensible.

'With full employment, maybe employers are forced to look wider and drop their prejudices? I'd like to think the change in the law will lead to changes in attitudes.'

Dennis Cox, 49

Dennis Cox qualified with Arthur Young McClelland Moores, then left after 10 years and joined BDO Binder Hamlyn. He left after three years to go to Midland Bank (now HSBC) where he stayed for eight years, then spent three with Prudential Portfolio Managers and a further two with HSBC prior to setting up Risk Reward Ltd (and a number of other companies) in 2002.

'I have regularly seen staff with good skills being asked to depart from employers, to some extent taking advantage of the position with regard to pension provision,' says Dennis. 'As chairman of the ICAEW's Interim Management Special Interest Group and also through Risk Reward Ltd, I regularly meet people aged 45 plus who have been released by their firms and have found it remarkably difficult to find employment. In my case I remember being rejected for a directorship at 43 for being too young and then rejected by another company at 45 for being too old - so the correct age must be 44!'

Dennis is a firm advocate of the benefits a more mature candidate can bring to a job.

'Older, more experienced staff can add significant value to a firm - they know how things are done around here and remember how we coped when things went wrong before. They may have different aspirations and needs, may be motivated by different things and may seek more flexible ways of working. While these are available for parents around the offspring period of their career, they are not usually designed to maintain skills during the latter stages of a working life.'

His involvement within the ICAEW gives him an insider's view on whether the institute is aware of the growing discontent among older accountants.

'I have not seen a lot of work being conducted on ageism in the workplace and do not see this as having been of a high importance.

'I have found that I am able to be both entrepreneurial and motivational as I grow older. I am hoping to be in a position that I can continually innovate over the following 20 years or so and hope that age will not become a barrier to this. I am looking forward to my future career with enthusiasm and energy.'

Robin Fowler, 55

Robin Fowler - a 'youthful 55' - is a fellow of both the ACCA and CIMA.

He has over 30 years of international experience in leading product, profit and revenue enhancement in plcs and high growth SME companies. Robin is currently focusing on corporate financial strategy harnessing IT technology and brings a wealth of experience and valuable insight into corporate groups.

He has experienced ageism seeking a new permanent role outside his existing personal network. 'This is evident from agency job advertisements that three to five years' experience is the restricting criteria sought for many of the senior FD/FC roles currently available,' he says.

He flags up another concern for maturing accountants looking for work; that the second generation-run SME owner may see the experience and gravitas that older subordinates/directors can bring to the role as a potential threat.

'With flat organisational structures in larger companies, senior managers are promoted early by youthful directors and set the pace for the age profile in their departments. Many larger company finance departments are exclusively staffed by the under 30s, so gravitate to recruiting in this age bracket.

'I've found the most effective solution is to exploit the network, identify a recruitment consultant who has the ability to sell you to a potential employer, and be receptive to interim assignments where you can display a broad range of skills.

'With the move from jobs for life to a more portfolio-based, flexible and mobile work force, with aging European demographics, the problem is growing in importance, not only for individuals who cannot get work, but for governments who will need to fund an aging population and the economy in general.

'It is of little use extending or abandoning the retirement age, if ageism persists. Ultimately the social bill will have to be picked up by the fortunate youthful employed - a situation causing real concern in Germany right now.' Advantages of older staff

Although Robin says that 'a number of enlightened employers do see the benefits of employing older staff - they are more loyal, just as dynamic (I've seen over 45s quicker off the mark than some geriatric 25 year olds), adaptable to change, have a broad range of experience, freely mentor and coach less experienced staff, and are not afraid to use technology to bring holistic solutions to business problems' - he is more critical of the institutes' response.

'The institutes target employers with how their new graduates and syllabus meet their needs, rather than promoting their older membership who have been constantly updating their skill base to meet the future needs of business - both academic and operational, so Continuing Professional Development is nothing new.' He claims it is 'hardly surprising that many older members consider resigning their membership after perceiving that they gain little benefit. Given the increasing age time bomb, this could cause real difficulty for the institute funding in the future.

'One only has to visit institute HQs to see the reducing ranks of grey beards at the executive or council level to see why the over 45s are disenfranchised.'

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