I won’t apologise for this discursive blog. The subject is complex and convoluted; it needs to be carefully unpicked in order to understand the intricacies. The subject is, in fact, so large, I don’t hope or expect to touch on all of it, but if I may, I want to tease out the threads I feel strongly about.
In order to proceed logically, I want to step backwards into the 20th century to show the initial precursor of seismic changes in socio-political mores. I don’t by the way propose going down the class rabbit-hole. I’ll save the pleasure for another blog! So, hold on to your hats for a whirlwind tour of the last hundred-odd years.
At the dawn of the 20th Century and Edward VII is the Head of State dies and George V takes over. Between the two Reigns, the Suffragette movement campaigns and eventually succeeds in getting the vote for women. Strike one for parity, equality and fairness. On his watch, the Great War overturns everything, and disillusionment sets in. In the 1920s, survivors of the Great War and Spanish flu rebel against the privations of war and shortages, earning the era a nickname that survives to the present day, the ‘roaring twenties’.
The Wall Street crash heralds in the Great Depression of the 1930s and by taking optimum advantage of the crash coinciding with a lucky-guess prediction of financial collapse, the Nazis forced themselves into power in Germany, pushing back their borders and precipitating a Second World War. The next generation fights hard to overcome the fiscal implications of fighting two wars one after the other, leading to another rebellion – the ‘Swinging Sixties’. In this era a group of women from Dagenham fight for equal pay and the first ‘equality’ in the workplace legislation becomes law. The economy slumps during the next decade, followed by the excesses of the Eighties and Nineties. Do you see a pattern here?
You may ask what all this has to do with age, sex and disability discrimination in the 21st Century?
Well the short answer is that today’s humans have been conditioned to accept and expect about-face switches in social, political, economic and even legal system u-turns because of what has happened over recent history. Possibly each generation (as they put it to themselves) strives to correct the errors of previous ones. To be fair, there are echoes of parents wanting better for their children, and in a sense, it is.
We accept such tumultuous changes as almost inevitable. That’s not to say no-one’s challenged the idea, just not with sufficient conviction as to raise real opposition.
Fast-forward to present day and the UK has legislated for fairer treatment/non-discrimination for all. It’s not perfect, but it does exist. In theory, every single person should have equal rights and access for every aspect of modern life.
They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the difference between theory (active legislation) and practice (actual experience) is a wide expansive gulf.
To illustrate, and I speak from experience, when applying for employment (theoretically) age is not something a prospective employer should take into consideration. However, I know it has adversely impacted my applications and employment history as I approached then passed my fifth decade. In my 40s, I fully qualified for one of the ‘professions’ – actually twice over, but I was a ‘mature’ candidate. Notwithstanding, I applied for the positions I was more than adequately qualified to do, and here’s what happened:
Once, I watched half a dozen other candidates filled past me to be interview (all younger). The interviewer eventually ‘awarded’ me fifteen minutes of his precious time two hours after my scheduled interview appointment time. He told me to ‘work on my administration skills’, since this was an area they found hard to recruit for. I should ‘forget’ four years in university and more evenings of dedicated study learning so I could apply for the job he clearly had no intention of considering me for.
On another occasion, the interviewer made an ill-judged remark about my ‘maturity’ for the role. I countered by pointing out the remark was directly discriminatory and illegal and left – with my dignity and pride, but without securing a job!
My final experience catapulted me from the workplace into searching for what I could do, rather than moan about what I could not.
As you may know, an employee gains full employment rights only after a year of employment. I was working for a company for several months on a permanent contract when I became poorly. I sought medical help. It was potentially very serious. In fact, the news was devastating. I rang in sick. I went back to work a week later, reporting the diagnosis directly to my boss on the first day back. The very next day, my boss said she wanted to see me. She led me an interview room, where she and a HR representative gave a termination of employment interview and handed me a letter confirming a month’s salary in lieu.
Age discrimination is thriving in the 21st Century. It’s happening because it’s ‘allowed’. No-one has taken up the issue or campaigned for a better solution.
It’s possible there’s a group of young people who all think it won’t happen or it doesn’t matter, but here’s another bone of contention – disabled workers.
The age discrimination I experienced above is perhaps more subtle, but it is there nonetheless for workers who are disabled. Some people go into the workforce already disabled or otherwise disadvantaged, but equally there are those who ‘acquire’ a disability during the course (or even because) of their career. I ‘acquired’ carpel tunnel syndrome through the office work I used to do. So, disabled, disadvantaged or physically challenged workers can find themselves in a similar position to the one I describe above.
Not long after I started work, I broke my ankle (at home – another story!) I worked in spite of the injury. Each work-day, I would try ‘racing’ for a bus to take me home, using my crutches in tandem, throwing my good leg forward in an effort to frog-hop my way along the pavements.
Many times, I would stand aside for mothers with prams or pushchairs, but noticeably, the ‘normal’ walking public did not. I would hold doors open so they didn’t swing into the person behind’s face, but the able-bodied general public (by and large) did no such thing and often I would find myself the unfortunate forced to catch a backwards swinging door – not easy when you’re on crutches!
I am now in the unenviable position of being classed as chronically ill and (in terms of the recent covid pandemic) ‘vulnerable’. It’s not a ‘class’ I want to belong in, and if I could change it, I would in a heartbeat.
One of the many issues I face is the thorny issue of what I am able to commit to. My spirit is ever willing, but predicting when I might be well enough to participate in a ‘zoom’ meeting or an online chat is difficult. I have ‘good’ days when I feel I’m getting somewhere, but then it’s as if someone flicks a switch and turns my energy off. This blog, for example, has been three weeks’ in limbo because I had a prolonged period of ‘not so good’ days. If I were to attempt to get back into the workplace, it would take a very understanding employer and a very flexible employment contract!
Another issue affecting the disabled/chronically ill is that of ‘agile’ or flexible working. This is something employers are supposed to look into and potentially offer to those employees who could benefit. The reality is of course so different. On balance, some employers are small businesses, and they cannot always accommodate a more flexible workplace. However, there are larger companies who seem to address the issue (and again this is something I have seen for myself) through ‘redundancies’, only to recruit a matter of weeks or months later.
Sex discrimination is also alive and well. Time after time, we see articles online or in the news where someone (a man) in the public eye has come to prominence for getting a fatter salary than his female counterpart. Thankfully, we are seeing greater diversity as far as women taking on formerly male-dominated roles, but economic parity is still a very long way off. If the latest news on private pensions is even halfway true, pension parity between the sexes bears a similar disparity. Even the most optimistic forecast claims it could be a decade or more before women begin to catch up with men.
The biggest disadvantage in all this is there are fewer young people entering UK the workforce to continue after the older generation retire. Young people will need, in the foreseeable future, to get used to the idea they will have to get used to working with older people and disabled people. They will have to get accustomed to treating their older or disabled workforce colleagues with dignity and respect or face the consequences of how to get through an increased workload with fewer (young) people. And here’s the rub – the older/disabled people will inevitably have to leave the workplace possibly far sooner than the incoming younger generation enter because they are already at or near to retirement age.
The incoming younger generation workforce might find themselves working harder for longer to get through more workload and endure longer hours because there are fewer workers and a greater, tougher workload to get through.
I know various agencies have been working tirelessly to get recognition for the value of diversity in the workplace and what older and/or disabled workers can offer.
In particular, I have watched over the course of my membership how hard the Society of Authors works to improve diversity and inclusion for disabled and chronically ill people and members.
From my observations, it seems to me the tide is going to be shifting in favour of inclusion, diversity and equality for disabled and chronically ill individuals in the workplace in the future. It is even possible that the improvements we are seeking may be closer than we hoped and may be offered rather than extracted in the manner of pulling teeth as perhaps happened in the past. At least, that’s what I’m hoping!
Friday, 10th March 2023