Fears have been raised that ageism in the recruitment process could exacerbate an unemployment crisis for over-50s in the year ahead, with the pandemic-driven shift towards remote hiring creating further hurdles for those made redundant in the coming months.

A new report by the Centre for Ageing Better found that most employers do not consider age bias in recruitment to be a “problem” in their organisation, despite evidence of a range of negative perceptions towards older applicants. These included assumptions such as older workers not wanting to fill junior roles, or that they have “poor IT skills” or look “worn-out”.

While young people have been hit particularly hard by job losses throughout the pandemic, evidence has consistently indicated that older workers have come under similar pressure. Unemployment among over-50s has increased by a third since 2019, and based on the number of furloughed workers in August, the Centre for Ageing Better estimates that more than 400,000 over-50s in the UK could be made redundant when the furlough scheme comes to an end on April 30.

According to Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, many of these people are at risk of being permanently excluded from the job market.

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Older workers are half as likely as their younger counterparts to be re-employed after being made redundant. Data from before the pandemic shows that only 35 per cent of redundant over-50s were in employment again within three months – the worst of any age group.

“The thing that jumps out for me from this report is that there is this kind of complacency around it all,” Mr Thomson said. “It’s this kind of shrug of the shoulders like it doesn’t really matter if there is age discrimination in employment.

“But if you do lose your job at an older age, we know that those people will have a far more difficult time finding new employment. For many, they’re effectively being forced to retire earlier than what they had planned for.”

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Sally-Anne Anderson, partner and employment specialist with Aberdein Considine, agrees that age gets short shrift when compared to the eight other characteristics protected under the Equality Act: “For whatever reason, people don’t get as excited about age as a protected category.”

The report from the Centre for Ageing Better found that employers are more likely to feel the need to take immediate action on gender and racial diversity than age. Several reported that there would need to be a “significant issue”, such as an age discrimination claim, to provide the impetus to do something about age-inclusivity.

Given the small number of claims made on the basis of age in comparison to gender and ethnicity, employers’ priorities are naturally weighted towards protecting against legal recrimination. In addition, most claims are made by employees – not applicants – as it is much more difficult to make a case for discrimination in the recruitment process.

Sections 39 and 40 of the Equality Act deal with the recruitment process. In summary, Ms Anderson said this covers three areas: that the hiring process must not be discriminatory; that pay and other terms of employment offered are not skewed on the basis of a protected characteristic; and that an applicant can not be turned down because of a protected characteristic.

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“It is certainly easier to demonstrate that the process itself has been set up in a discriminatory way than it is to prove that the decision-makers exercised bias when they were making their decision,” Ms Anderson said.

With that process now heavily reliant on video interviews, along with growing use of AI and gamification screening, the Centre for Ageing Better has warned that remote hiring must not be used in a way that increases age discrimination.

Mr Thomson is careful to point out that despite the stereotypes, many older workers have fluid IT skills. Problems in getting to grips with these new hiring techniques could affect anyone who has been with the same employer for a decade or more, though that naturally filters out those at the beginning of their careers.

“In and of themselves, these [new hiring technologies] are not good or bad things,” he said. “They are simply tools, and it is down to the way we use them.”