The last workplace taboo is older than you think

For financier John Marshall, his 27 years of service ended with a document he found in a colleague's office drawer. During a hearing at the Central London Employment Tribunal last week, the 60-year-old former head of finance and operations at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia described finding his name on the "target chart" of redundancies, and learning his replacement was to be a 47-year-old woman.

Mr Marshall asserts he is not just a victim of ageism but also sexism and racism by being replaced with a younger colleague whom he claims is no more talented. The bank disputes his version of events, calling it a straightforward redundancy. A decision on the hearing is expected by the end of the year.

The plight of the white, middle-aged man is one that tends to move few to sympathy. Captains of industry like Mr Marshall have long been perceived as what US author Tom Wolfe called "Masters of the Universe", but the case highlights a creeping ageism in the workplace.

No longer bulletproof

Tony Shiret, a respected city analyst who is nicknamed the "godfather of retail", successfully argued he was the victim of age discrimination after the banking giant Credit Suisse made him redundant in 2011. The 61-year-old admits he was "completely shocked" when he lost his job, and thought he was "bulletproof" because of his performance. "An incredibly small percentage of the workforce was over 50," he says. "It's the perception that the spoils go to the hungriest, and because you're of a certain age you're not that hungry."

Although progress remains slow and the gender pay gap entrenched, there are now zero all-male boards in the FTSE 100, down from 21 in 2011; while in 2015, 21 per cent of small-to-medium businesses in the UK were majority led by women.

When the BBC recently installed a new presenter of Sunday Politics after Andrew Neil, 68, stepped down following five years in the job, the corporation chose the Scottish journalist Sarah Smith - who for all her experience and broadcasting acumen is 19 years his junior.

The month before the announcement, the BBC annual report revealed in July that Neil was one of the corporation's highest-paid men. By paying him a lower salary, and promoting a woman in his place, the BBC may go some way towards achieving its goal of achieving gender pay parity by 2020.

Disappearing workforce

Yet, ageism remains a problem in every industry. Recent studies show that from their early 50s people begin to disappear from the workforce. Some 57 per cent of 50-to-59-year-olds who leave their jobs are forced out, much higher than in any other age group. The redundancy rate for 60-to-64-year-olds is twice as high as for those aged 16 to 49.

While the compulsory retirement age of 65 was scrapped in 2011 to seize the opportunity presented by an older workforce, many employers are failing to take an interest in the careers of more seasoned staff. According to a 2015 report by the Institute of Leadership and Management, 61 per cent of managers said their over-50s have very low (41 per cent) potential to progress, despite scoring higher than younger workers for occupation-specific knowledge and skills (85 per cent).


"Ageism is the last great taboo," says Rachael Saunders, director of Business in the Community's Age at Work campaign. "For example, sexist or racist language is, rightly, frowned upon, but calling someone an 'old duffer' or 'past it' is not seen as discrimination in the same way."

The old untouchables

Last year, Alan Dove, a 61-year-old sales rep at a luxury jeweller in Hertfordshire, was awarded more than £63,000 [$107,000] after bringing an age compensation case over being nicknamed "Gramps" and edged out of the business.

For Philip Landau, an employment lawyer at City law firm Landau Law, age discrimination is an increasingly frequent problem played out across both genders. The pattern he best recognises is "a substitution of older employees with younger individuals in general".

He says there is a clash between an older population still needing to work and a "millennial" corporate culture that dismisses the notion of jobs for life and long-term staff retention.

As the old untouchables of industry are beginning to find, those who never expected to be a victim are suddenly falling between the cracks.

Have you experienced discrimination in the workplace because of your age? Let us know in the comments below. 

The Daily Telegraph, London