The appeals of age shouldn’t be ignored

Last month the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce appealed against an employment tribunal’s ruling that it had discriminated against its 42-year-old European head of derivatives marketing, Achim Beck, by allowing a 35 year-old manager to oust him after putting out a search brief explicitly seeking to replace him with someone younger.

The bank lost. There should have been nothing surprising about that. After all, had a black employee been sacked and the search brief for his replacement indicated the bank was looking for someone who was “white”, nobody would have questioned the decision. However, the Beck case somehow still seems remarkable to some and continues to attract publicity.

It is as if there is an underlying current that says it is troubling enough that people can claim age discrimination but when a 42-year-old does it and wins, it is “political correctness gone mad”.

Why is that the case? It may be that while age discrimination has been unlawful for four years it is still taking time for people to adjust to this new reality after centuries of age discrimination being legal and commonplace. (Think again about those jokey birthday cards you read in the shops – one would not see racial stereotypes played on so glibly).

That could well be part of it. When discrimination of any type has been sanctioned for so long, it is unrealistic to expect the way people think to change overnight.

Even the law treats age discrimination less seriously than other forms because it allows it to be justified more easily and even permits mandatory retirement at 65, though this is likely to change from October 2011.

That is a move which one commentator has described as the loss of “one of the few flexible mechanisms left to employers”.

With hindsight, the comment could read as if the same could be said of being able to fire women when they became pregnant or married (also flexibilities for the employer but not ones that a tolerant society should permit).

Perhaps it is because there is a belief that age discrimination is the last refuge of the “stale pale male” (the tired executive in his 50s who cannot bring a race or a sex case). But why should this group not have the protection of the law if age is the reason for discrimination? Employees can no more help their age than their gender or race.

In the City the situation is even more pronounced. As Trevor Phillips, chairman of the
Equality and Human Rights Commission, observed “the culture of the [financial services]
industry effectively says that, after 40, you haven’t got anything to contribute”.

In our society the population is ageing rapidly, the public finances are in meltdown and people need to work longer. To chuck people on the scrapheap at such a young age simply makes no sense.

It is not “political correctness gone mad” when a 42-year-old man sues for age discrimination and wins. It is society that has lost its perspective if it has so internalised a culture where people are “all washed up at 42” that it neither celebrates the courage of an employee prepared to take on this pernicious practice nor the clear thinking of the tribunal for making the decision, but instead questions the wisdom of the law and the system that has outlawed that behaviour.