HR Consultancy

Rise of the Silver Staffers – An Ageing Irish Workforce

by Liam Barton

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Consider the word retirement.retirement-savings-jar-full-of-coins-and-alarm-clock_large

What springs to mind? Is it a peaceful, quiet passing of the days, filled with gardening and grandchildren? A precious time to indulge in your favourite pastimes, and reminisce about a life well-lived?

Or perhaps the word conjures something darker – the creeping feeling of being surpassed by a younger upstart; being put out to pasture, and worrying if you did enough; saved enough. Once you leave the world of work behind, how will you fill the days?

Whichever way the word makes you feel, you may have longer than you previously thought to mull it over. With the state pension age set to increase in 2021, and life expectancy on the rise, people are working longer than ever before.

The Equality Act 2015 came into effect on 1 January 2016 to align Irish legislation with European law regarding retirement ages. This amends the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015 and outlines that employers must objectively justify their mandatory retirement age going forward.

However mandatory retirement age policies could soon be a thing of the past in all sectors –  the OECD has recommended “the eventual elimination of all mandatory retirement policies in order to benefit workers, employers and economies”, a stance that Limerick TD Willie O’Dea has recently been championing.  A bill to abolish mandatory retirement age is currently working its way through Dáil Éireann.

It’s not just government and think-tanks that want to keep your nose to the grindstone for longer. There may be an appetite in the current workforce to work past the traditional retirement age – a 2016 report by William Fry found 63% of workers over 55 are prepared to work past the age of 66. But will employers welcome the rise in “silver staffers”?

More employees approaching their twilight years whilst still working brings many challenges. While older workers are often described as loyal, knowledgeable and hard-working, there is also the perception that they are less adaptable, more demanding, and less tech-savvy than younger co-workers. Being able to learn a new technology is a particular worry for both older employees and their employers, and 60% of businesses also believe it can be difficult for younger employees to manage their older counterparts.

The World Health Organisation state that “Age is not a reliable indicator when judging a worker’s potential productivity or employability”, but in reality, that does not stop ageism rearing its greying head in the workplace. Ireland was one of the first EU member states to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of age – the legislation was first used to penalise Ryanair for advertising a job looking for ‘a young and dynamic professional’ in 2001.  Since then, firms must tread very carefully when recruiting, promoting, or dismissing staff.

In 2015 the Equality Tribunal awarded a school teacher a full year’s salary after she was overlooked for a promotion, despite being the most qualified. They found age discrimination played a role in her younger, less qualified colleague getting the job.

More recently in 2017, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) ordered a family-run retail business to pay a bookkeeper they retired at 66 an award of €12,000.  In its submission to the WRC, the employer argued that it had an oral contract with the woman and that it was an implied term of that contract that she would retire on reaching the age of 65.

The business claimed that the termination of her employment was therefore effected on the basis of its understanding of this implied term, and not on the grounds of her age.  The business also pointed out that a pension had been created for this lady in 2004 which clearly foresaw her retirement at the age of 65.

In his ruling, the adjudication officer found that the termination was discriminatory and that the employer failed to provide any justification for it.  The adjudication officer said that in fact, the only justification offered by the employer was “somewhat vague, anachronistic and unlawful ”.  The adjudication officer did not feel the employer had the right to terminate this woman’s employment at 65 simply because it was traditional to do so.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg for another workplace ‘-ism’ that isn’t going away. With the overall population of Ireland getting older, we may continue to see a rise in companies being accused of age discrimination.

An allegation of ageism in the workplace, if successfully proven, can lead to bad press and costly pay-outs for businesses. If you are thinking of making a change in your company, it must be handled sensibly and sensitively. Contact Insight HR today on 056 770 1060, or email mcullen@insighthr.ie for expert advice.

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