Surveys suggest age bias in recruitment – but real research and evidence still needed

One issue which arises whenever extending working lives is discussed, is how to explain the apparent ambivalence of some employers towards older workers. “There are more older people in work,” questioners point out, “but how then can there be a problem in securing new jobs once one is over 50?”

At the most basic level, this is easy. Lots of people are staying on in jobs where they are wanted and valued, but this does not preclude other (or even the same) employers from being nervous of hiring them as new starters.

Indeed, more 50+ people are in employment – nearly 9.8 million according to the August figures issued by the Office of National Statistics, including 1.2 million over the age of 65. But against this, older job seekers are obliged to job search longer than other age groups before they get jobs.

Some give up, opting instead for what they may describe as early “retirement,” even though they would be happy to work if they could find the right job. Older job applicants certainly feel that they have been rejected because of their ages, and who can say that they are wrong?

Shaw Trust colleagues regularly comment on the problems of low morale among older job seekers – but how far is this the fault of ageist employers as opposed to the job seekers themselves having “barriers” which amount to objectively justifiable reasons for employers to reject them? We need to establish the reality.

Recent research into age discrimination among UK executives has attempted to probe the issue further. TCMO[1], an Edinburgh based outplacement, career and executive coaching organisation, has come up with “surprising results” on the ways top employers respond to age at work, according to its authors.

TCMO’s research probes the patterns that seem to characterise age discrimination, though it is important to record that its results are based on the impressions of the job seekers, and as such falls short of any real “taking the lid off discrimination” study. Nevertheless, it must be presumed that at a time when  age discrimination is unlawful, relatively few employers would be willing to overtly embrace it as official policy – hence even a study which scratches the surface may have value.

The following points summarise some of the findings:

  • Most people believe age discrimination kicks in at executive level before the age of 40, with more women thinking it happens at an early age and men thinking it happens at an older age.
  • Male bosses are far more likely to be the source of discrimination of any kind than female bosses.
  • Male managers are more likely to discriminate against men and women on grounds of age than women managers, but women managers are more likely to discriminate on the grounds of age against other women than they are against men.
  • A majority (74 per cent) of respondents believed that, working flexi/part-time opened applicants to discrimination, but 89 per cent of women, believed that part/flexi-time working results in discrimination while just under 50 per cent of men thought this is an issue.
  • A majority of both men (58 per cent) and women (57 per cent) believe that people complain about all forms of discrimination when it actually hasn’t taken place.
  • For men under 40, the idea that one has to wait for ‘dead men/women’s shoes’ to gain promotion is far less of an issue than it is for women under 40. Half of women think this is a problem, compared to only 25 per cent of men.
  • As we get older we believe it will be more difficult to get a new job after redundancy. While two-thirds of men are confident about getting  new jobs if they are made redundant over 40, only 36 per cent of women feel similarly. However, once over 50 more men (73 per cent) than women (67 per cent) are not confident about getting a job and once over 60 both sexes (89 per cent of men, 94 per cent of  women) are not confident of getting a job. 

As already stated – this is a survey of impressions of executives in transition. The TCMO research, “…was conducted using the company’s own database, augmented by social media and relevant Linkedin groups.” However, throwing the net as widely as possible in a trawl for participants does not really lend itself to a controlled, representative sample and may well produce un-representative results[2].

Nonetheless, even allowing for such methodological weaknesses, we are still left with one more survey confirming that age discrimination, on the face of it seems endemic among recruiters.

Quite possibly this is the reality, but we have reached the stage where “seems” is not good enough. We really do need to know the reality behind such appearances.

One final thought - if the recruitment industry wanted to answer such criticisms of age bias, it could do so relatively easily by commissioning genuinely independent research without the inherent bias of self-selecting samples. After all, while surveys of job seekers may be skewed by the absence of those who have quickly succeeded in returning to work or changing jobs, it is in no-one’s interests to persist with a narrative that employers are unwilling to hire older people, if the contrary is the case.

The other side of the coin is that if evidence were found to support the subjective impressions of older job seekers that they are routinely thwarted by persistent ageism of employers, surely this cannot be ignored by the recruitment industry, employers and Government alike.

Comment to Chris.Ball@shaw-trust.org.uk

Twitter: @taen_uk              @crystal_balls                       @shaw-trust



[1] The Career Management Organisation

[2] This approach closely parallels that followed in TAEN’s own 50+ job seekers’ survey http://www.taen.org.uk/uploads/resources/JobseekerSurveyReport_Final_03132.pdf Both surveys measured feelings of being discriminated againstwhich were not, it should be stressed, corroborated or proved, though that is not to say they were wrong or without foundation.