'Wrinkly' TV star wins under new ageism rules

A television presenter wins her age discrimination case against the BBC. But is the world of work ready to make room for the older generation?

The BBC sacked Miriam O’Reilly as a presenter of ‘Countryfile’ when they moved the show to primetime.

Why? Ms O’Reilly thought she knew. She is 53 years old, and before she was dropped, producers had started to make comments about her appearance. They had spoken to her about her grey hair and wrinkles, and suggested she should have injections to smooth out her face.

When Ms O’Reilly contested the decision, the BBC insisted that her sacking was nothing to do with her age. But this week an employment tribunal has forced them to apologise, offer her more work and pay damages for loss of earnings and 'injury to feelings'.

The ruling is a warning to bosses everywhere. Since 2006 it has been illegal to get rid of workers because of their age unless there is a provable and openly stated reason why it affects their work.

Television chiefs worry that older faces on TV put off young viewers; but the tribunal judgment said this was not true. 'We do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience,' the judgment stated.

Ms O’Reilly said she did not want to be judged on her looks: 'I would like to continue working so long as I am good at my job.

I know you can’t frighten the horses and you have to look presentable, but I do not believe that youth has to be key to keeping your job.'

Older people often want to work up to and even beyond the usual retirement age of 65 - they now expect to live longer and need the money because of inadequate pension income. And work, if you enjoy it, is also important for feeling happy and fulfilled, and meeting people.

Employers support the idea as well. In a recent survey, 93 per cent of them said the experience and skills of older employees were highly valuable. But 40 per cent of employees said they had experienced problems at work from appearing too old, particularly when applying for jobs.

Older and wiser?
Falling birth rates and longer life expectancy are making the working population older. And from this year, the default retirement age of 65 is being abolished, which could mean even more employees choosing to work later in life.

Everyone will have to adjust: employers, colleagues, and customers - even in an industry like the media, where physical appearance is important. But how easy will we find it to let go of our beliefs about what old people can do?

You Decide

  1. Is there work which is clearly better done by older or younger people? Why might an older television presenter put off young viewers?
  2. How many retired people, or pensioners, do you know well? Are they happier than if they were still working?

Activities

  1. Imagine your class runs a small business. Give everyone in the group a different profile, to create a team that represents different parts of the working population. Examples: a working part-time parent, an older person and a student on work experience. What skills and experience could they each contribute?
  2. You have been given the chance to present a TV show at 7pm which appeals to the whole family, young and old. Which issues will you cover, and how?

Some People Say...

“Old people should make way for the young. They’ve had their turn.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What has happened?
A law introduced in 2006 makes it illegal to discriminate against older workers. A 53 year old television presenter, the latest in a long line of older women who claimed they had been unfairly sacked, successfully challenged the decision to drop her from a show.
Does this matter outside the world of TV?
The working population is getting older, and the default retirement age of 65 is about to be abolished. So workplaces will have to get better at using the talents of older people.
What work problems to do older people face?
Stereotypes can damage older people: for example, there is a myth that older workers take more sick leave than younger colleagues, when the reverse is true. This can lead to rejected job applications and lack of promotion, as well as being forced out of work.
Why retire at all?
Some lines of work, such as being a musician or a writer, make it easy to keep going for as long as possible. Sporting careers can be short. Certain exceptional people have a job for life – think of The Queen.