Not long after I arrived on this little island, the government started a push to get businesses to hire older workers. Talented, experienced people made redundant (US: laid off) can find it hard to get new jobs because employers prefer to hire younger workers; the loss to the economy of workers who have lots of good years left in them was unconscionable, according to politicans. True and laudable, and even if the their agenda was actually to get older workers off the dole and therefore reduce government spending, it’s still laudable. They offered incentives to employers, and in due course recruitment adverts appeared.
Posters showed up on the doors of one of Guildford’s department stores: “Older workers! We value your experience!” They described how wonderful it would be to work for that particular retail chain and ended: “So even if you’re over 35, come in and request an application today!”
Even if you’re over 35?
Yes, the British may be ahead of Americans in lots of ways I like, but on the whole and to my US-adapted eye, they are way behind on ageism, especially in employment.
Americans’ use of euphemisms, including senior citizens, is a standing joke in the UK, but some people here have begun adopting seniors as a polite word to describe older people. The traditional term, OAPs, stands for Old Age Pensioners. On a board showing, say, prices of admission to a stately home or celebrated garden, you’re likely to read something like “£11 adults, £7 children and OAPs”. Pension in this case means a government pension, what Americans would call Social Security. You do still hear people use pensioners and OAPs (each letter pronounced separately, oh-ay-pees; it doesn’t sound like opes) in conversation, and routinely read those words in newspapers. Still, more and more, seniors is pushing out those older terms, the words themselves having, apparently, done their bit and earned their retirement.
That poster for 35-year-old department store clerks (UK: shop assistants) notwithstanding, British men must be 65 to collect their government pensions, just as in the US. “New Tricks”—as in, what you can’t teach an old dog—a current, lighthearted cop series on the box (US: on the tube) follows three retired police detectives who clear up cold cases, wringing all the humor it can out of their advanced age. Visiting dignitaries invited in to see these sharp minds at work find all three snoozing in their chairs and a younger assistant shushing the visitors because it’s nap time. After that sort of thing it was astonishing to learn in a later episode that they’re all under 65 and one of them isn’t even yet 60, hardly in the naptime age group. (Police officers can retire after 30 years service and can join the force at age 19, so some officers can retire at 49.)
The rush to label people as old seems to be worse for women—they become OAPs at 60. In the late 1980s—though I realize that was a while back—a sitcom called “Fresh Fields” followed a woman as she tried all kinds of activities to fill up the idle hours that hung heavily now that her useful life was over because her only child had left the nest. The show made much of how old, old, old she was, but we eventually found out her age: 40. No wonder it seems British women lie about their ages more than Americans do, and it’s even more impolite here to ask a lady her age than it is in the US.
A headhunter once calledto say my husband had left something vital off his CV (UK: curriculum vitae; US: résumé): his age. It had never occurred to him to include it. We’d come from California, where basing hiring decisions on age was illegal. A look at the “Appointments” (US: jobs) section of the Sunday Times confirmed that age definitely still mattered here: some ads said bluntly “must be under 25”, a few more refined ads for executives included lines such as “It is unlikely that candidates under the age of 30 will have the required experience”.
Still, I couldn’t understand why department stores—not trendy youthful boutiques on the cutting edge, but places catering to all ages—would have to be encouraged to hire people over 35. Why wouldn’t hiring people of 35, 45, or 55 be the norm?
A local friend provided the answer. That was, I think, the moment I started to think that the essence of foreignness is a difference in common sense. English life looks in many respects like American life and vice versa; for that matter, both look similar to life in most western European countries. But each of these societies has its own set of assumptions that run so deep that they’re rarely examined.
My friend said older workers have to be paid more, regardless of experience. It took a while for me to get this. If you pay a 22-year-old £6 per hour for flipping burgers, why wouldn’t you pay a 44-year-old the same? “Oh, but you couldn’t”, she said. “The forty-four year old has more bills to pay, probably a family to support—and anyway, they would expect to get more”.
To my American mind, the rate of pay matches the job, not the worker. If you need a job and are willing to flip burgers, you should expect to get a burger-flipping rate of pay. I asked around and heard other peoples’ stories; employers here really did pass over older workers on the assumption that they’d have to pay an older worker more for doing the same job, even if the older worker was starting over in a new field.
That seemed to explain, in part, why fewer people in the UK change careers. In most industries here, it’s not just a matter of retraining or being willing to start at the bottom of the ladder again, it’s a matter of having to find an employer in your newly chosen field willing to pay you as if you had a couple of decades of experience when really you’re just starting out. Of course they’d prefer to hire the 22-year-old, in that case. It seemed to me then—and still does—that the system trapped unemployed 44-year-olds into staying on government benefits instead of working, because an unemployed 44-year-old may not have as many employment options as a 16-year-old out looking for a first job.
Things are changing, though. As of 2006, age discrimination in hiring became illegal. The pension age for women is being raised, in stages, so that it will soon be the same as that for men. Mandatory retirement at 65 for many jobs will be abolished in 2011, too (which has obvious repercussions for younger people trying to get into the workforce, but nothing is simple).
I don’t know what the polite term for older people will be by the time I hit pension age, but whether I’m a senior or an OAP, at least I’ll still be eligible to work in a department store, even though I’ll be, er…over 35.