Britain’s state pension bill will double to £179billion in 20 years, which will make it around 7.7 percent of Britain’s GDP by 2064.

It’s a huge amount for a small country. The government’s answer is to push back the retirement age by six months each year.

So it had better get to work itself, persuading employers of the value of older, more experienced workers. A good start would be its own jobs website, Universal Jobs Match, which the BBC has found publishing adverts using terms that could be breaking anti-age discrimination laws. The BBC found similar jobs ads posted online by Reed – one of the UK’s biggest employment agencies.

For example, on both sites, hundreds of employers say they want “recent graduates”, which lawyers say implies they are looking for younger applicants.

So while the government is trying to encourage people to work longer and retire later, older job seekers are being frozen out of the jobs market.

Older employees have so much to offer.
Older employees have so much to offer.

Simon Silvie, 57, a former senior manager for a national IT firm, from Barrow, Cumbria, said he had applied for hundreds of jobs after being made redundant 18 months ago, but had rarely been invited to an interview.

“I would say it is age discrimination,” he said. “However, it is so hard to prove. I think that the people who are perpetrating this don’t even realise that they are doing it. It’s an unconscious bias against age.”

Ros Altmann, the government’s business champion for older workers, said there should be clearer instructions for people posting job ads, and possibly sanctions.

“We really do need to change our attitudes to older workers,” she said. “There’s no reason why you can’t have talented, ambitious people of any age – they don’t have to be young.”

There’s certainly no shortage of older people showing what they’re capable of.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is still writing books and consulting at the age of 81, and his mother was a practising surgeon at 75; 100 year old Fauja Singh became the first ever 100 year-old to finish a marathon (Toronto, 2011), 94 year old paediatric cardiologist Gerald Graham won accolades for his lecture in Berlin some months ago, former missionary Joan English 92 year was still translating the Old Testament into Tamil Nadu at the age of 92, 99 year old Lillian Weber still makes a dress for a small child in Africa every single day, 80 year old Yuichuri Nuyra set a record as the oldest person to climb Everest, after a fitness routine following four heart operations – and the list goes on.

‘Tremendous advances in medicine, healthcare and working conditions mean millions more stay healthy and energetic until much later in life,’ said Ros Altman, the government’s business champion for older workers.

‘If older people worked just one extra year this could add one percent to economic growth over time,’ she continued, ‘helping more of the over-50s to stay engaged in the labour force can be a win-win for us all.’

If the government can tackle ageism, especially with employers, it will be a compelling victory that will change a whole raft of issues relating to old age, never mind boost the country’s economy.

There are different views of when old age begins. Government researches did a survey that showed that on average, women think old age starts at 60 years, four months and two weeks. Men think it starts at 58 – potentially because they tend to live shorter lives. Under 50s say old age begins staggeringly early – at just 46. But for those over 50, they say it begins at 62-and-a-half. Those living in council housing say old age begins five years earlier than those who own their homes.

And the unemployed say middle age begins a huge nine years earlier than those in full time work. Men believe they stop feeling young earlier than women do, at 38-and-a-half rather than 42 years and nine months.Among 16 to 24-year-olds, this marker of middle age begins at 32. The over-80s believed that for them it began at 52 – just two years after the youngest group believe old age begins.

At the Christian event New Wine, we asked a number of children when they thought someone was old. A six year old said his 15 year old brother was old. A father standing behind his three children who were considering the question (it was part of a children’s competition we were taking part in) whispered over their heads, ‘I hope they don’t give my age!’

But the adults we interviewed said that people could be old at 40, because of their health and attitude, and young at 80, for the same reason.

It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are. And thinking of job vacancies caused by the thousands of people expected to have to leave their jobs to care for parents and relatives with dementia in the next few years, if they want their busineses to succeed, employers had better start rethinking attitudes to age, right now.

Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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