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What is Age Discrimination?

Last updated on 25th April 2023

Recent research into discrimination in the workplace by the UK-based HR company CIPHR produced startling results. They found that 11% of adults said that they had been discriminated against when applying for a job due to their age.

Over 1 in 20 had also experienced age discrimination in the workplace. According to their survey, age discrimination was much more common than other kinds of discrimination in the workplace. Furthermore, certain industries were more likely to report age discrimination. These included HR, Legal, and Arts and Culture.

What is age discrimination?

Age discrimination, also known as ageism, is when someone is treated differently or unfairly because of their age. It also includes how people are represented in the media, for example, which can affect the public perception of a particular age group.

Age discrimination can happen as an isolated incident or due to a policy or rule based on age. Thankfully, the Equality Act is there to protect people from age discrimination. It’s also worth noting that age discrimination can be unlawful even if it wasn’t intentional.

The effects of age discrimination can be far-reaching. They can impact a person’s job prospects, finances, quality of life and their confidence. Age discrimination must always be challenged to ensure nobody suffers due to their age.

Two men going for an interview of very different ages

What are the different types of age discrimination?

Age discrimination falls into four main categories, all of which are protected by the Equality Act. These categories are direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Let’s take a look at some examples of each below which may apply in the workplace before looking at each in more detail.

Direct discrimination Where an employee states that they will not offer someone a promotion or a job because they are too old or too young, for example.
Indirect discrimination Where an employer offers training but it is open only to those who have recently graduated. This therefore would exclude most older workers.
Harassment Where a co-worker makes fun of someone’s age which was offensive. This can also apply if they make comments about someone else’s age, such as a person’s husband, wife or partner.
Victimisation Where someone missed out on a promotion at work, for example, because they have reported or supported another colleague’s age discrimination complaint.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination happens when a person (or people) treats someone worse than others due to a protected characteristic – in this case, their age. Direct discrimination can also be when someone only thinks the other person has a protected characteristic, i.e., they think that they are older than they are. This is known as discrimination by perception.

Lastly, when it comes to direct discrimination, there is also discrimination by association, which means that someone is discriminated against because they are associated with someone who has that characteristic.

In a work situation, as mentioned above, an example of direct discrimination could be where an employer does not offer a promotion to an older employee due to their age and the fact that they’re nearer retirement, for example. Or it could be that only younger employees are offered the chance to do some training.

However, there are some situations when direct age discrimination is allowed but it must be for a good reason. This is also known as objective justification.

For example:

  • A person applying for a job is legally allowed to work there due to being underage, for example if a construction company does not employ under-18s because they don’t believe it’s safe as statistics show that those under 18 suffer more accidents on building sites.
  • A theatre company only auditions people in the right age group for the characters. It would not be appropriate to audition a 70-year-old man to play the role of a teenager, for example.

To be considered unlawful, the person must have experienced the alleged discrimination in a situation covered by the Equality Act such as when the person is receiving services or goods, or in the workplace.

Indirect discrimination 

This happens when an organisation has a blanket policy or arrangement for their customers or employees where it disadvantages some people. For example, a 20-year-old employee in a HR office cannot apply for a promotion because it requires a master’s qualification. However, it’s highly unlikely that any 20-year-old would have been able to achieve such qualifications because of their age.

There are also instances where indirect discrimination is permissible if the employer or organisation has a good reason (objective justification).


Harassment is a form of discrimination where someone offends another person or makes them feel degraded or humiliated, in this case due to their age. For example, a nurse mimicking the way that an elderly person is walking.

Other examples of such unwanted behaviour that could be considered age discrimination include:

  • Written or verbal abuse.
  • Banter’.
  • Offensive email or message content.
  • Comments on social media or websites.
  • Images (including memes and edited pictures).
  • Facial expressions and physical gestures including mimicking.

These behaviours only need be unwanted on one occasion, whether or not the person on the receiving end has previously accepted such behaviour.

Unlike direct and indirect age discrimination, harassment is never justifiable. Having said that, you can’t make an age-related harassment claim against an organisation if they have done everything possible to prevent such harassment from occurring. It is possible, however, to claim against the person guilty of the harassment.


Victimisation is when a person is treated badly because they have supported someone who has been discriminated or because they themselves have complained about age discrimination. The Equality Act recognises that by complaining about discrimination, someone may need extra protection.

Let us look at some examples of victimisation:

  • Someone is denied a promotion at work because they made a complaint about age discrimination whether or not they were the victim of that discrimination.
  • An employee is made redundant shortly after raising a case of discrimination.
  • An employee overhears a manager saying to a colleague that they’re an ‘old wrinkly’ and are ‘past it’ and so reports it but then suffers repercussions personally as a result.
Employer showing age discrimination to younger employee

Where could age discrimination take place?

Age discrimination can happen anywhere. However, there are certain places where it is more common such as in the workplace.

Age discrimination in the workplace can look like:

  • Certain phrases in job adverts asking for applicants with over a certain number of years’ experience, requesting recent graduates or by asking for someone ‘young and enthusiastic’.
  • Comments directly related to age such as implying that someone does not understand the latest technology or excluding someone from certain events that would typically appeal to a certain age group.
  • An employer ‘lightening the load’ of an older employee by moving them from more lucrative or important projects. This can also be masked as beneficial for the employee.
  • Encouragement to retire by offering retirement packages.
  • Giving a promotion to a younger, much less qualified and/or experienced colleague.

Of course, the workplace is an environment where a lot of unconscious bias happens too. So, employers need to be aware of any biases they may have and have procedures in place to keep them in check.

Age discrimination also happens in other places. The Northern Ireland Youth Forum has gathered evidence as to how younger people are often discriminated against because of their age. It suggests that young people are often excluded from leisure and retail services on the grounds of age as well as suffering from negative stereotyping.

Some examples their members reported were:

  • Medical professionals speaking to their parents/carers rather than directly to them.
  • Public transport such as buses and taxis driving past without stopping or the way in which drivers have spoken to them.
  • Discrimination from the police by being asked to separate into smaller groups or to move on from a certain place despite not doing anything wrong.
  • Being refused entry into shops because they were in a large group or because they were wearing school uniform. Also, some reported being asked to leave their school bags at the door of a shop or were followed around shops by security staff.

Of course, these examples are far from exhaustive and show that age discrimination is common regardless of which end of the age spectrum someone is on.

How are you protected from age discrimination?

Thankfully, in the UK there are laws to protect people from age discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 covers all kinds of discrimination based on certain protected characteristics, one of which is age. This makes age discrimination against the law.

The Act states that someone must not be discriminated against:

  • Because they are a certain age or in a certain age bracket.
  • Because they are not a certain age or in a certain age bracket.
  • Because someone thinks they are in a certain age group (this is called discrimination by perception).
  • Because they are connected to someone of a certain age group (discrimination by association).

Such age brackets can be wide like ‘under 18s’ or ‘over 50s’ or more specific such as ‘those in their mid-40s’. Words such as ‘pensioner’ or ‘young person’ also indicate an age group by default.

The Equality Act means that public bodies and employers have to prevent discrimination. These public bodies include hospital trusts, police forces and local authorities.

In 2011, the Public Sector Equality Duty came into force which stipulates that public bodies must aim to:

  • Eliminate discrimination including harassment and victimisation as prohibited by the Equality Act.
  • Improve equal opportunities between those who share a protected characteristic (such as being older) and those who do not have that characteristic (e.g., those who are younger).
  • Encourage positive relationships between those of different protected characteristics – in the case of age, relationships between younger and older people.

Aside from this, authorities must also publish equality objectives every four years or more frequently and show how they are compliant with the Public Sector Equality Duty.

The above rules go some way toward protecting people from unlawful age discrimination. However, there are still many examples of it happening both in the workplace and out of it. Thankfully, if someone does experience age discrimination, there are things that they can do to tackle it.

Is age discrimination ever permitted?

However, before you go jumping the gun, there are instances where age discrimination is legally permitted. These are also outlined in the Equality Act for situations that are ‘objectively justified’.

Here are a few permitted examples:

  • Fitness tests for certain job roles. An employer requiring a fitness test such as in the Fire Service. This may unwittingly exclude older people from doing the job as they are less likely to pass the test. However, this discrimination can be justified as firefighting requires immense fitness levels and people must be fit enough or the service would not work well.
  • Holidays. Companies offering holidays to particular age groups such as 18–30s holidays or over 50s trips to bring people of that age together.
  • Requesting proof of age. Products like fireworks, cigarettes and alcohol have age limits and, as such, it is not discriminatory for a business to ask for proof of age when someone is buying them.
  • Age-related discounts. Offering cheaper entry to leisure facilities or a specially priced lunch for older people are permitted.
  • Mobile home sites. Sites are allowed to set age restrictions on who can live on residential mobile home sites.
  • Sports. Sporting competitions or tournaments are permitted to be based on age for competitors.
  • Length of service benefits. Employers can reward employees for their length of service such as offering facilities, discounts or gifts as long as the employer can justify the reasoning for such perks (company loyalty, for example).
  • Minimum wage. It is not considered discriminatory to pay a younger worker the lower minimum wage.
Age discrimination is legally permitted in the fire service due to fitness tests

What to do if you have been a victim of ageism

If you have been on the receiving end of ageism, whether directly, indirectly or as a victim of harassment or victimisation, there are steps you can take to address it.

  • It’s wise to write down exactly what’s happened as soon as you can. This will mean that it’s recorded whilst it is fresh in your mind.
  • Talk to others around if possible and ask anyone if they witnessed the ageism or if they have experienced similar.
  • If possible, address the issue directly with the people involved. You can let them know how you feel and ask them to stop, if appropriate.
  • If you’re experiencing age discrimination at work, speak to your line manager if you can.

Many people take the age discrimination claim further and raise an official complaint.

To do so, you may need to follow this process:

1. Find the complaints’ procedure for the business or organisation that you believe is guilty of age discrimination:

a. If an employer, you could talk to a manager, HR or your union if you are in one.

b. If it is a business such as a hotel or a shop, you should contact the manager or the customer services department.

c. If it is a medical practice, ask the practice manager for the complaints’ procedure.

2. Fill in the detail of the discrimination following the complaints’ procedures reporting protocol. This may need to be on a specific form or could be written as an email or letter. You should also make it clear why you are complaining, i.e., that you believe you’ve been a victim of age discrimination and why. In your correspondence, suggest a possible resolution to your complaint. Would you like an apology? Do you think that the staff needs further training?

3. Await the organisation’s response. The complaints’ procedure should always have the next step to take if you are unhappy with the outcome following your complaint. Depending on the organisation, possible next steps could be:

a. Reporting the complaint to head office.

b. Reporting the complaint to an ombudsman.

c. Reporting the complaint to an official body such as an NHS Trust.

If your health is suffering as a direct result of age discrimination, you should raise this with your GP. It’s important to address the effects this has on your mental and physical health and wellbeing as soon as you can so that it does not escalate. Your GP may decide to refer you for talking therapies.

Lastly, if the issue still has not been resolved by taking the steps above, you can challenge it legally. The ACAS helpline is there to help anyone who needs workplace or employment law advice.

You can also approach a solicitor directly or speak to Citizens Advice. For further advice, the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) advises on how to proceed with a claim against someone for age discrimination. It’s worth noting that there are time limits too if you want to pursue a claim.

Final word

Unless it is in one of the areas where it is legally permitted, age discrimination is never ok. Whilst complaining about your experience may not be in your nature, organisations must be called out if they are discriminatory. Remember, support is always available if you are suffering from discrimination.

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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