What is age discrimination? Age discrimination is when you're treated differently because of your age in one of the situations that are covered by the Equality Act.
The Equality Act has some exceptions. For example, students are not protected from age discrimination at school.
The treatment could be a one-off action or as a result of a rule or policy based on age. It doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful. There are some circumstances when being treated differently due to age is lawful, these are explained at the end of this post.
What the Equality Act says about age discrimination: The Equality Act 2010 says that you must not be discriminated against because you are (or are not) a certain age or in a certain age group, because someone thinks you are (or are not) a specific age or age group (known as discrimination by perception) or because you are connected to someone of a specific age or age group (known as discrimination by association).
Age groups can be quite wide (for example, ‘people under 50’ or 'under 18s'). They can also be quite specific (for example, ‘people in their mid-40s’). Terms such as ‘young person’ and ‘youthful’ or ‘elderly’ and ‘pensioner’ can also indicate an age group.
Different types of age discrimination
There are four main types of age discrimination:
1. Direct discrimination: This happens when someone treats you worse than another person in a similar situation because of your age. For example your employer refuses to allow you to do a training course because she thinks you are ‘too old’, but allows younger colleagues to do the training. Direct age discrimination is permitted provided that the organisation or employer can show that there is a good reason for the discrimination. This is known as objective justification. For example you are 17 and apply for a job on a construction site. The building company refuses to employ under-18s on that site because accident statistics show that it can be dangerous for them. The company’s treatment of you is probably justified.
2. Indirect discrimination: Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation has a particular policy or way of working that applies to everyone but which puts people of your age group at a disadvantage. For example you are 22 and you find you are not eligible to be promoted because your employer has a policy that only workers with a post graduate qualification (such as a Masters) can be promoted. Although this applies to everyone it disadvantages people of your age because they are less likely to have that qualification or an optician allows customers to pay for their glasses by instalments, provided they are in employment. This could indirectly discriminate against older people, who are less likely to be working. Like direct age discrimination, indirect age discrimination can be permitted if the organisation or employer is able to show that there is a good reason for the policy. This is known as objective justification.
3. Harassment: Harassment occurs when someone makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded. For example during a training session at work, the trainer keeps commenting how slow an older employee is at learning how to use a new software package because of his age. The employee finds this distressing. This could be considered harassment related to age Harassment can never be justified. However, if an organisation or employer can show it did everything it could to prevent people who work for it from behaving like that, you will not be able to make a claim for harassment against it, although you could make a claim against the harasser.
4. Victimisation: This is when you are treated badly because you have made a complaint of age discrimination under the Equality Act. It can also occur if you are supporting someone who has made a complaint of age discrimination. For example your colleague complains of being called a 'wrinkly' at work. You help them complain to your manager. Your manager treats you badly as a result of getting involved.
Circumstances when being treated differently due to age is lawful: A difference in treatment may be lawful if belonging to a particular age group is essential for a job: this is called an occupational requirement. For example, a film company making a film of Oliver Twist may lawfully hire a young boy to play Oliver or an organisation is taking positive action to encourage or develop people in an age group that is under-represented or disadvantaged in a role or activity.
It is also lawful if the circumstances fall under one of the exceptions to the Equality Act that allow organisations to provide different treatment in employment or services based on age or if a service provider is making age-related concessions and benefits. For example, a cinema can offer over 60s cheap tickets and special screenings or a GP can offer flu jabs to over 65s.