Feeling your age?

‘Growing old is like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven’t committed.’

When British novelist Anthony Powell wrote these words in his 1973 novel Temporary Kings, could it be that the accountancy profession of the 21st century was at the forefront of his mind?

Accountancy may be one of the oldest professions around – but that’s not to say that age discrimination across the sector isn’t rife.

In April, the shocking results of the last Accountancy Age/Robert Half Finance & Accounting salary survey highlighted widespread discrimination across the profession.

Back then, one in three respondents said they had experienced discrimination in the workplace. And although gender and sexual orientation both cropped up as the cause of their unfair treatment, a quarter said prejudice had taken the form of age discrimination.

Six months later, and unfair treatment on grounds of age – either because individuals are deemed too old or too young – lives on.

Just a glance at the profile of respondents to the survey speaks volumes about the challenges ahead. With those in the 25 to 45 age group making up 67% of respondents, and with just 8% being over 56 years of age, getting the message across about the benefits of an age-diverse workforce is proving to be a slow and painful process.

Demographics alone are not necessarily cause for concern – the issue that few women are progressing to the highest echelons of the profession, even though they represent half of accountancy intake students, is a debate in its own right.

But what is of concern is that half of respondents between the ages of 56 and 65 said they believed they had been discriminated against for being too old, alongside one in three respondents in the 46 to 55 age group.

At the same time, young people are just as likely to suffer from age discrimination as their older colleagues, the survey reveals. Half of employees under 25 and 27% of those between the ages of 25 and 35 feel they are unfairly treated because of their age.

Of those who claimed discrimination for being too young, 50% said that they had been paid less or received lower pay rises as a result. Two out of five said they had not received the same promotional opportunities as older colleagues, and 22% said they had not been entrusted to manage older colleagues.

For older workers who feel they have been on the receiving end of unfair treatment, not only is a lack of respect prevalent, but 43% say discrimination had led to being passed over for promotional opportunities.

Almost one in three said that they believed they had been turned down for jobs on the basis of their age.

But as the pensions crisis in the UK looms, and pressure mounts for individuals to work way past the current mandatory retirement ages, the chairman of the independent pensions commission, Adair Turner, has already made public the body’s concerns that problems are building up that will be felt in 15 or 20 years time, unless we all work longer.

And yet three quarters of those surveyed across all ages said they were against the idea of an increase in the retirement age to 70. The figure is marginally lower – 71% – among those respondents in the 65-plus age group.

Whether this consensus is based on emotional or practical issues, is unclear.

Nonetheless 73% of respondents said they believed there were barriers to extending the retirement age.

More than half said that they believed companies were fundamentally ageist, 61% said they believed that health was an issue. Perhaps more alarmingly, one in 10 respondents said they believed accountancy was a ‘young’ profession – rather ironic considering how many young accountants feel as if they are on the receiving end of age bias.

Fear over the dwindling pot of money to fund our retirements is only part of the story. In two years time, age discrimination legislation is due to come into force, but our findings highlight all too clearly that the profession has some way to go before claims of a level palying field for all employees, regardless of age, can be seen as more than empty rhetoric.

Already legal experts have warned that job adverts using phrases such as ‘experienced’, ‘graduate’ or ‘mature’ could be viewed as discriminatory and in breach of imminent law.

A recent survey by law firm Eversheds revealed that only a fifth of companies had a ban on using age as a factor in recruitment.

Audrey Williams, partner at the firm and a specialist in discrimination legislation, believes too many employers are in danger of burying their heads in the sand over the issue.

‘Too many think the legislation is a long way away, but addressing the issue will involve fundamental changes to policy and practices. In general, companies still think it’s alright to discriminate on the grounds of age. And many people still think it’s just about older people. But younger people too will gain new rights under the 2006 legislation,’ says Williams.

The accountancy profession needs to tackle the issue head on or it will face a backlash from staff, who will either vote with their feet or take a more heavy-handed approach to voicing their frustration.

Already Eversheds is predicting a rash of age discrimination lawsuits in 2006, as individuals take the law into their own hands in an attempt to protect themselves.

But it is not all bad tidings, Williams says, and forward-thinking employers should view the impending changes as an opportunity to not only get their houses in order, but to gain some competitive advantage as the battle for talent heightens.

‘This will involve change – but this can be good news,’ Williams says.

‘Those who are ahead of the game will be in a stronger position to recruit and retain much sought-after staff.’

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