The scandal of state-sponsored age discrimination

Rosie asks why she’s paid less than her older co-workers when she puts in just as much effort

Equal respect, worth, and dignity are leading principles in modern politics and culture. It is a widespread belief that a person should not be paid less than their colleagues in the same role purely due to a difference in background.  We see this  sentiment protected in UK laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1970 which prevents discrimination in  employment between men and women.

However, this sentiment is also infringed upon in the UK laws that give us varying minimum wage rates. If you are below 25 you are not entitled to the National Living Wage (£8.72 as of April 2020), but rather lower ‘National Minimum Wages.’ At its most extreme, due to age, a younger person  can earn just 52% of the National Living Wage of their older colleagues with the same job.

I am 19 and an employee at a shoe retail shop where, although more experienced than a lot of my colleagues, I am paid 74 pence to every pound they make because of my age.

Under the Equality Act (2010) section 4, Age is listed as a ‘protected characteristic’. Further on in the Act to defines direct discrimination as “A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.” I would contend that under 25-year-olds are being treated less favourably by employers and by extension our government, than those aged over 25. Therefore under 25-year-olds are, under the guidelines of UK legislation, being discriminated against. 

This is justified by its supporters through the idea that young people may be less experienced and therefore less effective than other colleagues. But this is frequently not the case. I am 19 and an employee at a shoe retail shop where, although more experienced than a lot of my colleagues, I am paid 74 pence to every pound they make because of my age. However, I do not do 74% of their job nor am I 26% less efficient. Rather I am often given the responsibility to train these older colleagues, who are paid more than I am. 

A key reason my lower wage frustrates me is that this  wasn’t always the case. My employer used to recognise the equal worth of me and my colleagues and paid us equally accordingly – but with a new contract, I was given a sharp pay cut, whilst my older colleagues were unaffected. I remember the first shift I had after these changes. I came in  feeling deflated and undervalued. That day I was the top seller in the shop.

I do not do 74% of their job nor am I 26% less efficient. Rather I am often given the responsibility to train these older colleagues, who are paid more than I am.

The way I view my expenditure is in ‘hours worked.’ For example, a monthly utility and shopping bill for me comes to around £120. This used to equate to fourteen and a half hours of work. Now, it equates to almost nineteen hours. Like many, my income is used to subsidise my university expenditure, which means that I’m constantly balancing academics and my social life with my job. This balancing act got a whole lot harder when I got a pay cut.

Another  argument used in favour of paying younger people less  is that  these brackets are required to help promote greater youth employment to employers who are trying to save money. This justification is, in my eyes, not reason enough to have systemized discrimination, as well as a contradiction, in our laws. What if we apply this logic to other ‘protected characteristics’ cited in the Equalities  Act, like gender? Would society accept it if, due to the detrimental effects of unemployment on women, to promote greater employment, women were given  to a lower wage than  men? If not, why does society accept the discriminatory treatment of older workers  on the basis of pay?

I was given a sharp pay cut, whilst my older colleagues were unaffected. I remember the first shift I had after these changes. I came in  feeling deflated and undervalued. That day I was the top seller in the shop.

A further flawed basis for these lower pay brackets is that the law assumes young adults always have family support. Again, this is often not the case. Younger workers  without such luxury do not just pay 74% of their rent, transport cost, heating, water, electricity, toiletries nor food shopping – but they should, in proportion to their older peers. We  are not given a legal right to the National Living Wage but we  still have to finance our  cost of living

The aforementioned age pay gap is greater than almost all other prevalent pay gaps in the UK. However, age discrimination is codified as legitimate policy. We need the government to stop the scandal of state-sponsored age discrimination. I accept that youth unemployment, like all unemployment, is harmful. But shouldn’t we react to it with further upskilling, rather than devaluing and discriminating against younger labour market participants? If I do what is required from me and often more, should I not be paid a living wage?

Are you affected by this law? What’s your take? Let us know in the comments.

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