Age discrimination - The final frontier

Too old, too young? Attitudes to age in the workplace are under challenge.

Lesley Bolton.

Age is the final frontier in terms of employment issues in the workplace.

Discrimination on gender, sex and race is already outlawed, and when legislation on ageism is introduced in less than a year from now, the final piece of the jigsaw will be in place.

However, it's never just about laws - what has to change are people's attitudes and perceptions. A UK-wide survey by Kent University for Age Concern, published in September, found that ageism is the most widely experienced form of prejudice in the UK.

Stereotypes have to be broken down. Often economic drivers are precursors to this and with the age issue, the demographics have been well rehearsed in the press: by 2025 there will be 1.6m more people over 65 than under 16 years old. And let's not forget that one of the reasons the ICAEW pursued its merger plans was because by 2023 nearly half of all members will be 55 or older.

The latest labour market statistics show that people past the state pension age make up the fastest-growing group in work - accounting for 9.8% of the workplace.

'The next two decades will see exciting changes in the workplace and older workers will be at the forefront of those changes,' says a recent report, Working in the Third Age, by City & Guilds.

Coupled with this is the fact that the age issue affects every single person, whatever their gender, race or sexuality, so they have a vested interest. 'What's interesting is that the issue applies to everybody,' says Sarah Bond, head of diversity at KPMG. 'It's really obvious and so is easy to relate to.'


The classic ageist stereotype is that of the older worker - over the hill at 50 and having run out of steam. There is no doubt that these stereotypes still persist (see our case studies on p38). However, as Bond points out: 'At each end of the age spectrum there are positive and negative stereotypes.' Just look at the age-versus-experience battle recently fought out in the Conservative party leadership contest.

As Paul Quinlan, senior employee relations consultant at Ernst & Young, puts it: 'Age is sometimes used as a shorthand: too young (inexperienced) or too old (underperforming).'

If a young gun makes a mess of something, then it's because of their youth and inexperience. Zoe Tindall, the young dynamic finance director of restaurant chain Yo! Sushi, is a case in point. The business is in great shape since her arrival, but if it hadn't worked, she would have made the perfect scapegoat. It would, she says, have gone something like this: 'What do you expect if you employ a 29-year-old girl who wears jeans and trainers as your FD?' (see our FD interview on p52).

'Accountants are slow to change,' says Phil Sheridan, managing director of recruitment consultant Robert Half International (UK). 'The challenge is to get cultural change. And that should start from the top.' Rather than viewing the forthcoming employment legislation as just more restrictions on their freedom to choose the people they want, companies should embrace the opportunity to focus on 'talent pools' rather than specific employee profiles, he says.

The Employers Forum on Age (EFA), an independent network of employers that have committed to an age diverse workforce, reported earlier this year that ageism at work is a bigger problem for people in their late teens than in their 50s. It also found that people in their 50s and 60s aren't all rushing to retire: 30% of people are content to work until they're 70 and 13% dread retirement. Its research also showed that people are happier at work the older they get: 93% of the over-60s like work - the highest among all age groups.

Crucially, found the EFA, although people in their 30s are at the 'peak' of their career, they're under most pressure at work and least want to be there. Only 54% of those in their 30s were found to be happy with their work-life balance and just 17% professed to be happy to work until they're 70 - the lowest numbers among all age groups.

EFA director Sam Mercer comments: 'This is a wake-up call for employers: we need to break the stereotype habit and be much more aware of people's needs at different stages of their working lives.'

How it affects accountants

It's fair to say that the days of a job for life, when an accountant joined a firm in his teens, took the same train to work everyday (with the same commuters) and stayed put for 50 years with an expectation that that firm would see them right, have long gone.

'Sentiment has changed,' says Peter Wyman, PricewaterhouseCoopers partner and a former ICAEW president. 'A few years ago, everyone was talking about how much increased leisure time we would all have. We would retire earlier and the choices we would be making would be what to do with that leisure time. Now there is no doubt there is a general mood to work longer, and a recognition that people will have to work longer.'

The old model of moving out older partners to bring in young blood is also one well passed its use-by date, according to E&Y's Quinlan.

Wyman adds that the new age discrimination law simply means that you can't move people out on grounds of age. But this doesn't mean that if there are underperformers 'cluttering up the place' you won't be able to move them on.

'There are some people who are absolutely full of energy when they hit 60 and certainly wouldn't want to retire. There are others who are burnt out at 45. You will still see a lot people saying that 10 years as a partner is all they want to do,' says Wyman.

He points out that the new age legislation will require that partners cannot be discriminated on age in partnership agreements. 'That takes you to 65,' says Wyman, 'but currently very few professional partnership agreements have such a late retirement age.' He says that at PwC, the retirement age over the years has ranged from 65, to 62, to 60 and to the mid-50s in many cases now.

Smaller practices

For accountants in smaller practices, there are a number of economic drivers affecting how long they continue to work. According to Phil Shohet of consultancy KATO, very few partners are retiring early unless they've got good pensions.

It's a fact not widely highlighted, but the collapse of life insurer Equitable has had an 'almost unbelievable' effect on the profession, says Shohet. 'Equitable has its teeth right into our profession. Many say: "We would have retired at 55, but we can't now",' he adds.

Tony Osude, head of post-qualification education at the ICAEW, points out that Abstract 40 on revenue recognition will have an impact on the age at which accountants can retire. The issue is the subject of ongoing controversy, but at present the tax on work-in-progress it requires will create massive tax bills for accountants, who will have to work longer to pay them, he believes.

Another 'dimension', as Shohet puts it, is the increasing number of accountants who have remarried and find they have a young family to support again in their mid to late 50s. As a result of this, they have to 'plough on'.

Where they are able, partners are retiring, mainly from their mid-50s.

Some will be partners who have earned well and are able to retire and indulge their hobbies. They've probably built up a really good client base and can sell the goodwill on acquisition by another firm. 'They are often exhausted and have had enough,' says Shohet.

Others will find employment as non-executive directors or as consultants, possibly on a part-time basis. But Shohet points out in these cases it is a matter of choice rather than ageism. 'I don't see ageism at work here,' he says. He believes there is no shortage of work for older accountants with specific skills and experience.

Indeed, a recent survey from Venture Finance on SME attitudes towards employing older workers shows that 98% of small businesses would employ members of staff over the age of 50. Director Alison Small comments: 'Entrepreneurialism among those over 50 has rapidly risen over the last decade. There are many reasons contributing to this trend, such as redundancy or retirement, increase in salary and freedom of being one's own boss. This generation also has a lifetime of experience and is likely to have realistic expectations of both themselves and their business. Such knowledge is invaluable to the success of any venture.'

Team players

Robert Half's Sheridan emphasises that it is important not to confuse age with lack of energy and ambition: 'Older accountants looking for work may not want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, but they will do a very good dynamic job. They are people who take huge pride in their work. Companies have been very blinkered about this.'

He says that Robert Half has not seen a dramatic change in the number of older people registering with the consultancy, of which there have always been a significant number. 'They do struggle to find permanent staff positions so many take temporary or interim posts which they often then find fits in with their lifestyle, and they can take control of their schedules.'

Where older accountants are employed in temporary posts, says Sheridan, they have a significantly positive effect on the permanent staff, in terms of the work ethic, loyalty and experience they demonstrate. This in turn can help accelerate the development of younger staff.

As Sheridan puts it, a team needs older heads with experience that rubs off on to younger players. If companies open their minds they will benefit from this wisdom, as will the aged 50-plus accountants who register with agencies.

Retention issues

For E&Y's Quinlan, the retention issue is the driver for addressing ageism.

Currently E&Y's recruitment systems ask applicants for the firm's graduate recruitment programme for their date of birth, but this is being reviewed.

It does not require experienced hires to include dates of birth on their CVs, although some applicants include this information anyway.

The firm says that two years ago it introduced formal procedures as part of its flexible working policy to encourage people who wished to do so to work beyond its normal retirement age. Although take up is slow at present, it has increased. Currently, of the firm's partners, 27% (124) are over the age of 50.

The firm has recently established a project group to review its employment practices in the light of the draft age regulations.

Similarly, the drivers at Big Four firm KPMG are retention of the best people, demographics of an ageing population, the legislation, and a broader commitment to diversity. Bond says the firm has set up an 'Action on age group' and has joined the EFA, which offers members a toolkit for complying with the age legislation. 'We're at the stage of identifying what we need to do,' she says.


The ICAEW, which although it did not formally respond to the government's proposals on age legislation, points out that unlike its European counterparts, it remains open to retired members. It has 13,500 members at different stages of retirement.

'Even if members believe they are close to retirement it could be that they have 10 years added in the form of an extension. We see Continuing Professional Development as a means of supporting them in that,' comments Osude. 'A lot of our knowledge has a short shelf-life, so our members are having to learn more faster and to learn new ways of thinking. For accountants in business, the move from being mere number-crunchers to strategists represents a significant shift, and one that older members are very much part off,' he says.

'You have to learn to stay abreast. CPD helps prioritise this,' says Osude. 'Our role is to get them to understand what they need.'

Furthermore some 7,000 retired members perform a lot of financial charity work, for which they need to keep up to date with current SORPs and other relevant material.

Drivers to a longer working life

•    Declining economic productivity due to a fall in the birth rate

•    Increased lifespans

•    Pensions shortfalls

•    The Equitable crisis

•    Still paying off the mortgage

•    Desire to work longer

•    Skills shortages

•    More positive concepts of age

•    New families to support

•    Abstract 40

•    Age discrimination legislation

USEFUL CONTACTS The Employers Forum on Age

Age Partnership Group

(for more information on creating an age diverse workforce)

Number of over 50s in the workplace 2005 - 30% 2020 - 43%
Total number of accountants in the workplace 2004 - 368,000 2020 - 494,000
Number of those aged 60+ 2004 - 13,000 2020 - 99,000

Source: Working in the Third Age, City & Guilds, March 2005 (predictions from the Centre of Future Studies)

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