Ageism in the Workplace

A quote often attributed to Mark Twain, the American author, is: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”

In an ideal world, this would always be the case. But discrimination against older people, or ‘ageism’, remains all too prevalent in society and in the workplace.

The Centre for Ageing Better, a charity organisation, last month (February) launched a campaign, Age Without Limits, that once again highlights the issue of ageism.

The group warned of the ‘scarring’ impact of ageism – on our health, job prospects and the way we live our lives, with a knock-on effect on society and the economy.

Ageism in the workplace is a perennial issue. The campaign aims to stamp out age discrimination in society, while encouraging employers to recruit more older workers in order to help turn the tide on Britain’s weak economic and productivity performance.

A 2004 report from the National Audit Office estimated the relatively low levels of employment among older workers costs the economy between £19bn and £31bn a year, mostly in lost output but also because of reduced taxes and increased welfare payments.


New data from the charity revealed that half of adults aged 50 and over in England have experienced age discrimination in the last year. The three-year campaign is set to challenge the way we all think about ageing, tackle prejudices and empower people to age with confidence.

For people in their 50s and 60s who experienced discrimination because of their age in the past 12 months, this happened most commonly in work (37%), followed by social media and television, movies or news reports (32%), and as a consumer (32%).

For people aged over 70, age discrimination was most keenly felt on social media, television, movies or news reports (44%), as a consumer (43%) and in health or social care settings (29%).

As well as the many social situations where ageism occurs, age discrimination in the workplace remains stubbornly high.

According to some of the charity’s key findings:

– Half of the UK population believe society is ageist.

– One in three people aged 50 and over believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age.

– One in five employers believe that age discrimination occurs in their organisation.

– Older applicants are less likely to be hired, and once employed, less likely to receive training.

– Ageism has a detrimental impact on the workforce – 460,000 people aged 50-64 are currently out of work but would like to be in work and ageism is one of the key barriers they face.

Dr Carole Easton, chief executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “Ageism is the prejudice that’s hidden in plain sight. We see and hear casual ageism every day, it’s embedded in our society and even accepted as normal by many of us who are older.

“Ageism scars lives. It is often dismissed as being harmless, but if you look at the research, or speak to people whose lives have been affected by ageism, you will soon realise ageist ideas or beliefs can be incredibly damaging for us as individuals and for wider society.”

Big Four 

From a governance perspective, there is not much official guidance on upper age limits for directors.

The UK Corporate Governance Code says nothing specific about directors’ age – there is guidance about the length of time someone can serve as chair of the board (9 years); non-executive directors also aren’t considered ‘independent’ if they serve for longer than 9 years.

In addition, The Companies Act 2006 only stipulates that an individual must be 16 or older to be a board director – there is no upper age restriction.

So, in the UK it is up to individual companies to make decisions about retirement age. This can be a sensitive issue … one that has plunged even the biggest companies into hot water.

In November 2023, the Financial Times reported that executives of EY, the ‘big four’ accountancy firm, had clashed over whether age should be a factor in appointing a new global leader. Like the other big four accounting giants – Deloitte, PwC and KPMG – EY has a mandatory retirement age of 60.

One of the leading contenders to succeed current boss Carmine Di Sibio, who retires this year, is 57-year-old British partner, Andy Baldwin.

Baldwin reportedly warned other executives that they risked breaching UK age discrimination laws as they sounded out senior partners on his candidacy.

Some members of EY’s global executive committee are said to have argued against Baldwin’s candidacy on the grounds that he is close to the retirement age of 60. He would not be able to serve a full four-year term unless he is given an exemption.

In the end, Baldwin made the shortlist of six candidates, but the issue was raised again in interviews with hundreds of partners during a “soundings” process.

It is not uncommon for senior EY partners to be granted an extension to their retirement age. Di Sibio was given an extra two years, while Hywel Ball, 61, UK chairman of EY, has also been allowed to stay in his role beyond the normal cut-off.


Shutting older people out of the workforce has plunged several industries into skills and labour shortages. As well as the potential legal and reputational damage that ageism in the workplace can cause, it also has wider repercussions for the economy – with less income tax and national insurance receipts flowing into Treasury coffers and a higher welfare bill.

If boards and company owners know all this, ditching employment practices that favour youth over experience may be the ultimate demonstration of wisdom.

About the author

image of Karl West

Karl West

Freelance journalist, podcaster and media adviser. Senior Consultant at The Institute of Directors.

Karl has more than 25 years of experience in the media sector, including several years at The Sunday Times and Daily Mail, where he wrote about business – mainly transport, defence and UK manufacturing industries.

He has a podcast – The All Points West Podcast – that interviews the founders, CEOs and Chairs of small and medium sized UK companies.

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