What the law can give, the law can take away. A recent ruling by the Supreme Court gives back to employers the right to dismiss old people because they are old, at least in certain circumstances. The ruling makes chilling reading.
The case was that of a partner in a firm of solicitors. The partners had agreed by private contract to retire at the age of 65, but when the partner who subsequently brought the case reached the age of 65, he found that he could not afford to do so. In the meantime, age discrimination had been outlawed, so when the other partners refused to allow him to continue in the practice, he brought a case against them. The Supreme Court has ruled against him, not on the grounds that he wanted to break the contract, but on other, potentially sinister grounds.
The judgment is complicated, but the overall impression it gives is that a person may be lawfully dismissed on grounds of age if such dismissal meets social objectives as laid down by the government; for example, to meet the need for “intergenerational fairness” in the distribution of jobs, or to reduce unemployment among the young. But people cannot be dismissed if it is for “purely individual reasons particular to the employer’s situation, such as cost reduction or improving competitiveness”. In other words, the employer must consider everyone’s interests but his own.
The problem with what the judgment considers legitimate objectives is that they are contradictory, especially today, when the number of jobs available is smaller than the number of people wanting to work. We want to reduce youth unemployment, and one means of doing so is to get older people to retire, so that young people can climb on to the job escalator; on the other hand, we want to delay the retirement age because the cost of pensions is a drag on the economy. Besides, people are not only living longer, but are healthier; they do not want to don the carpet slippers too soon. So there are good reasons to permit discrimination on grounds of age and equally good reasons not to do so.
According to the judgment, only the state can adjudicate between the competing claims of discrimination and non-discrimination. The image of Solomon and the two putative mothers of the child comes to mind. But how Solomonic is the state? After all, it created a large part of the mess in the first place. People have to work so long partly because for years the state, in its Solomonic wisdom, has been operating an unfunded pyramid pension scheme that makes Mr Madoff seem like a small-time operator.
So, are the old or ageing selfish for continuing to work? Or are they selfish for having retired too soon? Now one, now the other; both and neither. The problem is that the circle cannot be squared, not even with age and experience.
Originally published in The Telegraph.