How are younger people unlawfully discriminated against at work?
“Baby faced”, “inbetweener” – just a couple of the terms used to describe 25-year-old Keir Mather who has just been elected as Labour MP for Selby & Ainsty and becomes the youngest member in the House of Commons.
Age discrimination and younger workers
While age is often the ‘forgotten’ protected characteristic (with older people suffering both systemic disadvantage and sometimes jibes that would not be tolerated about other groups) many overlook entirely the way in which younger people can be unlawfully discriminated against at work. The age provisions in the Equality Act are there to protect everyone, but even most academic research about age discrimination focusses on older people.
What obstacles do young people face when entering the workforce?
And obstacles faced by young people in the workplace can be multiple and damaging. Most organisations are based, whether by design or accident, on a hierarchy of specific ‘experience’. While it makes sense for those who have longstanding knowledge of the organisation and the work to lead, it can also mean that some people may be anxious to cling on to their spot further up the ladder, even if that means being dismissive of valuable contributions from younger colleagues.
The term ‘generation gap’ was first used in the early 1960s when most of the oldest of today’s workers were being born or in primary school, and Pete Townshend of The Who (78) was preparing to tell the world that he hoped he died before he got old.
In the 4th century BC, Plato was famously exercised about the dissolute young. Whether it arises from fear, parental relationships, a disparity in energy levels or habit, it’s clear that a degree of suspicion and distaste between various age groups is nothing new.
Are generational terms harmful?
Today, the divide is further highlighted in the media, especially social media by polarising discourse around generational terms – baby boomer, Generation X, Millennial, GenZ. These sociological categories may have some use in research, but the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes – even hostility – is unhelpful.
In the workplace, danger lies in thinly veiled references to informal ‘on the job’ training or ‘trials’ which can provide an excuse for low pay and exclusion from making full contributions. A recent survey revealed that almost half of young people struggle with acquiring workplace ‘jargon’. It’s a truism that we all start out young seeking our place, and most of us will one day be the older worker. But the universality of the experience does not mean that it’s all a rite of passage. It’s not kind and it’s not good for business.
How can workplaces make the most of people’s talents from the very start of their career?
- Ensure training has clear objectives and a proper structure and is not just a vague term for the first period of employment. Consider whether an apprenticeship could be an appropriate tool.
- When looking at reward, evaluate contribution not tenure. A system of individual annual increments may help with retention but does not necessarily drive performance and innovation. Try to find a suitable balance that doesn’t leave effective younger workers behind.
- Unnecessary jargon is not helpful to anyone of any age and is a barrier to participation. Keep it to a minimum and make sure necessary terms are explained in the induction period.
- Patronising behaviour and comments about ‘kids’ or ‘millennials’ should be as firmly out of the picture as other types of workplace ‘banter’. See employment tribunal cases Roberts v Cash Zone and Osborne v Ghondia and others for how the law regards age related comments towards young workers.
- If you offer a range of benefits, be mindful that they included the sorts of things that reflect different priorities and interests.
- Mentoring schemes can be a valuable way for younger employees to gain workplace skills and understand your organisation.
- When drafting specifications for recruitment, ask yourself if a specific length of experience is necessary. Focus on the skills and knowledge that you need right away.