A FEW days before the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, the Centre for Ageing Better produced a paper which reported worrying levels of ageism towards older generations.

With the dire title Doddery But Dear?, it showed that, in a workplace, aged members of staff were assumed to be less efficient, less able to learn new skills, and more costly to employ.

Getting older was seen as an inevitable process of declining health; at the same time, this group was widely resented for being a burden on society by using up too many of its resources. Women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds suffered a “double jeopardy” in terms of discrimination. Unsurprisingly, the report concluded there needed to be a “fundamental culture shift” to overturn what it described as an ingrained culture of “pity and dislike” towards older folk.

There was nothing startling in these discoveries, certainly not for those who, since turning grey, had discovered they were simultaneously invisible and, at best, an object of patronising assumptions and mockery.

Rosemary Goring: Face it – the Kirk is no longer our national church

The timing of Doddery But Dear? could not have been more appropriate, even though its findings were buried amid the clamour around Covid. In the months following, over-50s began leaving the workplace in their droves. Now, almost three years after HMRC first noticed them disappearing down the plughole, there is a palpable sense of panic.

While bosses or colleagues often made them feel unwanted or undervalued, it has now become apparent how invaluable their contribution was. Without them, it seems, employers are unable to fill posts requiring maturity and experience; nor can they sell products that appeal to older consumers, or offer the public the reassurance of long-standing members of staff, whose presence bears testimony to the reliability of a service or brand.

In a neat reversal of fortunes, those who were the victims of ageism are suddenly on the front foot. It’s not just a job seeker’s market, it’s a market opening its arms to those who witnessed the first Moon landing.

Not everyone who packed it in during Covid suffered discrimination, and some left because of dread of contracting the disease. Even so, there is no doubt that once the big five-0 is passed, in many companies there’s a slippery slope in terms of promotional prospects and esteem. With the introduction of new technology, some who were once utterly confident in their roles started to flounder. Without the support necessary to learn innovative ways of doing things, they were left feeling inadequate.

As a 59-year-old friend admitted, when doing a course on a complicated computer programme introduced into her office, thirtysomethings were skipping through the training in half the time it took her. Once she had grasped what she was doing, however, she was as confident as a school-leaver.

Rosemary Goring: 'I think our spare room was moonlighting as a walk-in freezer'

Yet for many ageing staff, the office, shop-floor, or whatever arena they were in, could feel hostile. Asking for help merely reinforced the idea that their time was past, and they belonged to the Jurassic rather than the microchip age.

Even those who could do their job as well or better than younger colleagues heard the executioner’s axe being sharpened whenever they passed the bean counter’s office. Either their face no longer fitted the company profile, or their salary was deemed too steep, since it would fund two or three more youthful employees.

While studies have shown that older workers are actually more efficient, being able to draw on a wealth of experience, the general view is of steadily and inevitably declining powers. No wonder so many decided their time was up.

What a terrible waste! All that knowledge and skill thrown away, to the detriment not just of a company’s performance, but to the well-being and efficiency of the entire staff.

I can just about understand those over-60s who decided to take the leap during Covid, and draw on private pensions and savings. The decision of those in their fifties is harder to accept. According to a government report, Over 50s Lifestyle Study, the majority of this cohort was not retiring, as such, but leaving work because of mental health issues – including stress – or disability. Now, with Covid retreating and the cost of living crisis biting, 86% of 50-54-year-olds say they would consider returning to work, as do 65% of 55-59-year olds, compared with 44% of those aged 60-65.

Quite rightly, if they are to make a U-turn, they have a wish list, with good pay and flexible working conditions (including working from home), a priority. Added to that, surely, should be an assurance that they won’t have to endure sly digs about pipes and slippers, or catch a note of exasperation when they call IT for technical support.

HeraldScotland: 86% of 50-54-year-olds say they would consider returning to work, as do 65% of 55-59-year olds, compared with 44% of those aged 60-6586% of 50-54-year-olds say they would consider returning to work, as do 65% of 55-59-year olds, compared with 44% of those aged 60-65 (Image: Newsquest)

Firms eager to entice this demographic back will be smart enough to make them feel wanted. Far harder to achieve is a turnaround in the prejudice felt towards those of advancing years. This is one of those bone-deep perceptions that are harder to exterminate than Japanese knotweed. One survey has shown that at least half the population globally harbours negative views of their elders. Given that we all hope to reach a decent age, this is truly alarming.

With debate ongoing about when to raise the state pension age to 68, it is not an issue that can be brushed aside. Already for many there is no option of leaving work early. People old enough to have great-grandchildren will be in post until they’re knocking on 70: in banks or schools, cafes and supermarkets, fixing the roof or plumbing. Some will be as fit as youngsters, others feeling their age.

Rosemary Goring: The great bank meltdown is making many lives a misery

Employers can make their conditions far more amenable. Equally important, however, is for society to rethink the unfair stereotypes it holds, so that the old – whether at work or in the community – feel valued and included, not just tolerated.

This won’t be easy. These days we pride ourselves on being quick to call out racism or sexism, but most of us don’t pause to reflect on the way we view senior citizens. Tackling ageism is about more than giving up your seat on the bus (and plenty of elderly folk would rather you didn’t). It’s about realising that behind every ageing face lies the young person they once were, with the same hopes and emotions, vulnerabilities and strengths as everyone else.