Age and reason

Age discrimination is self-defeating. Companies that employ less suitable people simply on the basis of their age will do worse than companies that employ the most suitable candidates regardless of age.

But that is not the same thing as saying that age and experience are not often relevant to someone's suitability for the job. Legislation trying to prevent companies from discovering the age of job applicants is not only bound to fail, but also ought to fail (Daily Telegraph, 26 Sept 2006, p. B7).

It is bound to fail because the clues that cannot be removed from a CV (e.g. whether the candidate took CGSEs or O-levels, or their work experience) will be confirmed or overturned at interview. Companies cannot be made to employ people of a certain age simply by making it more difficult to identify their age before interview. What they can be made to do is interview more people in order to get round the limitations of information provided on application. And they can be made to use less rational rules-of-thumb, such as only asking those with O-levels (or GCSEs, depending what age-range is desired) to reduce the risk of inviting candidates who they do not think will be suited, possibly eliminating suitable candidates for wont of better information.

It ought to fail because there are many circumstances where age is relevant. Preferring someone of a particular age or level of experience is not unfair discrimination in the same way that preferring someone on the basis of their colour, race, religion or gender. Many jobs have physical demands for which a person's age is an important consideration, if only for health and safety reasons. Other jobs require a maturity that cannot be expected of someone in their twenties. And above all, experience counts, and it is difficult to gain experience without also gaining age.

So the enforced removal of an applicant's date of birth from their CV under new employment legislation is stupid and bound to have more bad than good effects. But is it picking losers? Don't we all suffer equally from this "equal-opportunities" legislation? Well, no. People invited to job interviews who would otherwise not have been, had the potential employer been aware of their age, will have more of their time wasted than previously. Time and travel cost money and effort, to the long-term unemployed as much as to any other. And the repeated raising and then dashing of hopes that comes from inviting someone to interview that the employer will not want once they have overcome the lack of information, will be at least as damaging, if not more so, as the current difficulty in obtaining interviews for those who are unemployed or incapacitated. The problem is not a failure to consider particular types of applicants, but a shortage of suitable jobs for those types of applicants. High costs of employment (though protective legislation and taxation), generous social provision that makes less well-paid jobs uneconomic, and restrictions on employment termination make it less likely that those jobs will be created.

Employers will also suffer, as their most obvious response is to invite a larger number of candidates to interview, to increase the chances of meeting a candidate that fits their actual requirements. This will further increase the costs of employment, disinclining employers to expand their workforce. Not all employers will be affected equally, as small companies do not have the resources of large companies to simply throw more internal bureaucracy at the latest regulatory imposition from government. The net effect will be to expand yet again the ranks of large companies' non-productive compliance departments, whilst shrinking the numbers of people in productive employment in large and particularly small companies. This will not be compensated by a significant improvement in the employment potential of those who are intended to be helped by this legislation. Yet again, the regulators and their enforcers are the winners, whilst the individual and the economy are the losers. No wonder the balance between the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy swings ever stronger in favour of the latter. But is it sustainable?