Reviewing lawful exceptions to age discrimination protection
According to the World Health Organization, “ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age.” The WHO report looks specifically at ageism towards older people10, which is widespread in Europe. In the field of employment in particular, ageism is the cause of older people being side-lined despite their desire to be active in the labour market. All Member States have legislation implementing non-discrimination based on age in employment. Most of these laws transpose the EU directive establishing the Employment Equality directive (2000/78/EC).
The implementation of this directive is to be evaluated every five years in a report by the European Commission. In this evaluation process, stakeholders are invited to provide their views on the application of the directive. AGE last participated in this consultation in 2020. However, AGE could not access the Commission’s report to follow this consultation, making it impossible to make appropriate recommendations.
In the March 2021 policy paper, The Right to Work in old age: How the EU Employment Framework directive still leaves older workers behind, AGE points out that Article 6 of the directive “allows the possibility to justify direct age discrimination, as long as there is a legitimate aim”. This allows Member States to apply a wide range of exceptions in their legislation discriminating against part of the population based on their age.
Although the adoption of the Employment Equality directive has increased general awareness of the unacceptability of age limits in recruitment, maximum age requirements in access to employment, training or social protection relating to employment, are still accepted.
Among the most commonly accepted age limits, compulsory retirement at a certain age still applies in some countries, denying a certain section of the population its right to work. The 2022 Comparative analysis of non-discrimination law in Europe of the European network of legal experts in gender equality and non-discrimination divides the application of this article into three categories of Member States: Member States with legislation that does not impose a mandatory retirement age, nor does it remove protection against unfair dismissal for workers over a certain age; Member States where the retirement age is specified in national legislation for public sector employees only; and finally, Member States whose legislation allows for the compulsory retirement of employees, whether in the public or private sector, because employees have reached a certain age.
However, age limits also exist in many Member States as support measures for older people in the labour market. In some countries, these seem to be more widely available across the territory, whereas in others unequal treatment is at stake in case some local authorities offer these services and others do not. These measures are good to proactively aim to avoid exclusion. The measures, however, should not portray older people as more vulnerable. Age-neutral measures supporting older workers such as the “first in, last out” principle in Sweden that encourages the retention of the most experienced workers, are a good alternative to support older persons in the labour market without setting an age limit.
Although the revision of the Employment Equality directive is not being considered, alternative paths are taking shape. First, AGE continues pushing for the adoption of a horizontal directive aimed at proposing an EU-wide minimum level of protection against discrimination through a horizontal approach, complementing the Employment Equality directive. In December 2022, the European Commission published two proposals for new directives on standards to strengthen national equality bodies, which would support the implementation of the Employment Equality Directive in EU Member States by helping to prevent discrimination and better protect victims.
When asked about the procedures to follow in the event of age discrimination, AGE members reported the difficulty of pursuing this type of complaint. The procedure is often unknown to the general public or complaints are not followed up. According to the EU Equality law review of 2020/2, there has been an improvement in national legislation regarding sanctions and solutions in cases of discrimination. However, it also states that in several countries, compensation for age discrimination is very low. In several Member States, in particular, no sanctions are imposed for age discrimination, even though they exist for other types of discrimination.
The need to adopt a new narrative on ageing
To put an end to ageism in the labour market, AGE welcomes the existence of information and communication. However, AGE recommends raising awareness on ageism in the labour market, through local campaigns and training for instance. Among the initiatives identified by AGE members, the Belgian documentary REBELS by Ann Peuteman and Brecht Vanhoenacker where the character of Nadia stubbornly continues to apply for jobs without success, illustrating the negative view of ageing and being sidelined by society. Still in Belgium, the independent public institution UNIA gives access to an online training module called “eDiv” which enables employers to learn how to apply the non-discrimination legislation in their daily work. Finally, in Romania, AGE members have highlighted the platform Angajez 45+ (“I hire 45+”), aiming to raise awareness and mobilise employers and employees to end age discrimination in the recruitment process.
Age discrimination in the recruitment process, a good practice called “Experience Required”
VeHadarta – The Third Force, an Israeli NGO, is dedicated to reshaping the prevailing societal perception of senior adults, reframing them from a perceived burden to a valuable resource. Within this demographic, many individuals have retired due to ageism—experiencing poor treatment and career limitations because of their age—or have been affected by restrictive pension laws. A significant portion of this group finds themselves relying on welfare subsidies, inadequate pensions, or, when available, the financial support of their children. VeHadarta’s central goal is to empower these individuals, fostering financial security, independence, heightened self-esteem, and emotional well-being.
To realise this vision, in 2009 VeHadarta introduced a groundbreaking model known as “Experience Required.” Developed in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Social Equality, Israeli and international companies, and private benefactors, this innovative online job platform directly connected employers with senior adult job seekers. Simultaneously, VeHadarta provided extensive support and guidance to both job seekers and employers registered on the platform. In the public sphere, VeHadarta organized conferences for employers and orchestrated awareness-raising events aimed at combating ageism in the workplace. Notably, VeHadarta was featured in the AARP international comparative survey of ageing programs, recognized as Israel’s pioneering flagship online job platform dedicated to older adults (The Aging Readiness & Competitiveness Report, AARP International Journal, p14).
The success of the “Experience Required” model led to the evolution of a more sophisticated version, “Experience Required 2.0.” This enhanced model delved into a wide spectrum of diverse data, illuminating the shortcomings of the traditional employment landscape, particularly the dearth of opportunities aligning with the needs and skills of older workers.
As a result, in 2022, VeHadarta made a pivotal transition from the “Experience Required” model to “SKEELZ”, a cutting-edge program founded on “skills-based hiring.” This approach allows employers to reduce reliance on degree completion and previous employment history, emphasising an assessment of demonstrated skills, talent, and competencies. Leveraging an artificial intelligence engine in the field of human resources, this model maps and matches the skill sets of senior adult job seekers with the hiring needs of employers, thus increasing the number and quality of placements while shortening placement times.
Through the “SKEELZ” platform, VeHadarta is catalyzing a sustainable and substantial societal transformation: the emergence of a “world without age,” where age ceases to be a barrier, and the merits of the third age—experience and skills—take center stage.
Over the past year, VeHadarta has successfully completed Stage 1 of the new “SKEELZ” website, which is currently operational, boasting approximately 3,000 job seekers and 500 relevant job postings. Each day, VeHadarta facilitates numerous matches between senior job seekers and suitable positions in the evolving job market. Furthermore, VeHadarta has elevated the quality of job listings and enhanced our technological capabilities. VeHadarta is also proactively pursuing additional public and business partnerships, fortifying the initiative’s long-term sustainability.
AGE members also stressed the need to enhance the value of age diversity in companies. They further demand to counteract the prejudice that high hiring rates of older workers create barriers to young people’s employment. On the contrary, it seems that when employment rates of older workers are high, employment rates of younger workers are also high. Cooperation between generations benefits companies and the labour market in several ways. At the company level, a diverse workforce is generally more productive and more prone to innovation because it brings together different talents and experiences. An OECD report about age-inclusive workforces explains that “building multigenerational workforces and giving older employees greater opportunities to work could raise GDP per capita by 19% over the next three decades”. Companies with an age diversity policy report a more resilient workforce and improved workforce continuity and stability. Lastly, they seem to respond better to the expectations of consumers and/or customers whose age and life paths are diversified. Several initiatives to promote age diversity in companies exist at the Member States level, such as an initiative financed by the Republic of Slovenia and the European Union under the European Social Fund, which seeks to reduce and eliminate stereotypes, promote intergenerational cooperation and respect for other generations in the workplace through educational workshops on these issues and give MEGA (short for Intergenerational active company in Slovenian) awards to employers.
An intersectional approach reflecting the population in its diversity
Some Member States recognise age’s intersection with other forms of discrimination in their legislation. In Malta for instance, National Strategic Policy for Active Ageing 2021-2027 “recognises the significance of intersectionality” and suggests also “several policy and legal measures with a specific approach to intersectional discrimination“.
Older people cannot be seen as a homogeneous group, but rather in all their diversity. The older we get, the more different we become thanks to life experience. In this context, an intersectional approach is necessary to tackle different and multiple forms of discrimination that older people face.
Older women are particularly affected by intersectional discrimination in the labour market. Indeed, the gender gap for people between 55 and 64 years old is the highest of all age groups (12.5 percentage points). Women are disowned and discriminated against because of their gender from an early age. This discrimination accumulates and is reflected even more strongly in later life. The pay gap between men and women, the lack of autonomy granted to women with regard to the family, the absence of adequate support to combat systemic sexism and gender bias, and the fact that the vast majority of women have to reduce their working hours because they are responsible for informal care, are just a few examples of the way discrimination against women manifest itself on the labour market. Employment-related policies need to focus on the specific obstacles faced by women throughout their lives, to better address the difficulties encountered in the labour market in old age. The Swedish model is inspiring in this respect because several measures provide special support to women throughout their lives to guarantee their right to work, care work, for those concerned, their autonomy and their work-life balance. This is reflected in the position of older women in the labour market.
Older lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people
As explained in the joint policy paper from AGE Platform Europe and The European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe), untitled Equality for older lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Europe, “A major source of insecurity for older people in same-sex couples results from the lack of legal recognition of their relationships, exemplified by the denial of entitlement to inheritance of property, tax inequality and lower or denied entitlement to pensions compared to their heterosexual counterparts.” It is also the case in the labour market where, for instance, same-sex couples are not allowed to access employment benefits for married couples.
In a survey carried out for the joint policy document, AGE and ILGA reported higher figures than the general average (4.35%) for violence received from colleagues:
- 43.53% of older trans men experienced violence from a colleague much higher than trans men of all ages: 9,28%
- 19.86% of older non-binary people experienced violence from a colleague
Professor Matt Flynn, from the University of Leicester Business School, conducted a research project in the UK called Dragons Voice: Giving older migrants a Say in healthy work aiming to understand the problems faced by older migrants in the labour market. The results of this research showed in particular that migrants are more likely to work after pension age. However, they are often in insecure jobs despite their skills and experience. The project highlighted that:
- 30% of migrants 65-70 years old are still in work
- 22% of 50+ working migrants say they are self-employed
- 45% of retired migrants say ill health was a reason for leaving work
- 25% of 50+ migrants consider their health fair or poor.
Among the recommendations, the project highlights the need to support older migrants to pursue missions they left behind when coming to the UK and give older migrants a voice in designing work for their second mission.
All AGE’s recommendations to end age discrimination in employment can be found in the Barometer and in the one-pager, which you can both download below.
Policy Officer on Employment and European Parliament Liaison
Sarah is in charge of AGE’s policy activities in the fields of employment, participation and active citizenship in old age. She also monitors EU initiatives on volunteering for older people and lifelong learning. She is responsible for the Task Force dedicated to on Employment, participation and active citizenship. Sarah also coordinates AGE’s relations with the European Parliament (EP).