Genuinely taking on board age discrimination legislation poses a serious challenge for academe, says John Macnicol. The recent resignation of Menzies Campbell as Liberal Democrat leader raised disturbing questions about ageism in modern political culture. If Churchill could become Prime Minister for the first time at the age of 65, and Gladstone for the fourth time at 83, surely political leaders today should still be in their prime at 66? Several commentators tellingly pointed out that had criticisms been made on the basis of Campbell's race or sex they would have been considered offensive and probably illegal.
Has ageism worsened in recent decades? It seems paradoxical that we should wage a more intense war on our future selves at the same time as we are living longer and there is a greater proportion of old people in the population: familiarity should breed respect, not contempt. Prejudice against older people has, of course, always existed; yet it was only in the late 1960s that the term "ageism" was coined to denote those attitudes, actions and vocabularies that serve to accord people a diminished social status solely on grounds of their age. Ageism can apply at any age - to the young and middle-aged, as well as the old - and one major difficulty is that it is closely bound up with those age norms and age-appropriate behaviours by which people fashion their identities and make sense of the world.
For example, a relationship that spans a wide age gap is considered unusual, and even unwise, for reasons that may be largely rational. Likewise, many age stipulations (for example, protecting children) are considered to be in the public interest. Because of these and other inherent complexities, ageism is probably best countered by campaigns to enlighten public opinion rather than by legislation.
By contrast, age discrimination in employment has been the focus of increasing governmental attention in the past 15 years, culminating in the European Union-inspired Age Regulations of October 2006 (under which nobody under the age of 65 can be compulsorily retired, unless it is "objectively justified").
Improving the employment prospects of older people is ostensibly a response to several concerns - a future ageing population, the crisis of state and private pension provision, skills shortages and the human tragedy of nearly one third of people between 50 and state pension age jobless. Action against age discrimination in employment is also closely bound up with new Labour's overall macroeconomic strategy of achieving long-term, non-inflationary economic growth by expanding labour supply, thereby driving down wages and production costs and keeping interest rates low. Removing age discriminatory "barriers" is accordingly seen by the Government as essential to achieving the target of getting one million more people aged 50 and over back into work. However, this strategy rests on the contentious assumption that age discrimination has been the main cause of older workers' employment problems. In fact, economic restructuring since the 1970s is the real cause.
If the default retirement age of 65 is eventually uncapped, what might be the effect on academic life in Britain? It is clear that it could pose serious problems for universities. Some highly productive academics would stay on into their seventies, continuing to teach well and publish prolifically, justifying their higher salaries. Others, worn out by the increasing intensification of academic life, would still retire when aged in their sixties. However, the problematic group would be those in the middle who wished to stay on despite declining productivity.
If universities introduce more ruthless individualised performance appraisals, conducted annually, this could prove expensive and potentially litigious: in order not to be age-discriminatory, they would have to apply to staff of all ages. It is to be hoped that universities will respond imaginatively with more opportunities to go part-time, thereby enhancing choice via more flexible or phased retirement. An alternative might be to offer generous exit incentives; but this would add even more to salary costs at a time when universities' financial situation may still be precarious. The abolition of mandatory retirement could worsen the job prospects of younger academics. Unless higher tuition fees provide significant sources of extra funding, entry-level academic jobs will become scarcer. Social justice may require that we do not throw older, productive academics on the scrap-heap, but it also needs to protect the employment rights of the young.
John Macnicol is visiting professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. His book Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 2006) recently won the Social Policy Association's award for Best New Publication, 2006-07.