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Older workers: rights at work

It is estimated by 2020 that people aged 50 and over will comprise almost a third of the working age population, as a result the proportion of older workers is increasing.

Key points

  • There is no default retirement age, unless it can be justified (however, there is still a state pension age, and some companies will have an occupational pension age)
  • It is unlawful to discriminate against employees because of their age.
  • Grandparents generally have no legal right to paid or unpaid time off to care for their grandchildren.
  • Employees have a legal right to request flexible working after 26 weeks employment.

Default retirement age

Employers cannot dismiss someone on the grounds of retirement, or force employees to retire. They are also unable to set a retirement age unless it can be objectively justified, for example, posts in the emergency service that require a significant level of physical fitness. Older workers can retire voluntarily at a time they choose and draw any occupational pension they are entitled to.

Whatever the age of an employee, employers can discuss their future aims and aspirations as this can help identify their training or development needs. These discussions may involve the question of where the employee see themselves in the next few years. The outcome of any workplace discussion should be recorded and held for as long as there is a business need to do so. It would also be good practice to give a copy to the employee.

Myth: Older workers are just coasting until retirement so it is not worth investing in training.

Reality: Older workers tend to be loyal and less likely to change jobs frequently. So spending on training older workers is likely to be recovered before they retire.

Age discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees, job seekers and trainees because of their age and there is no upper age limit on unfair dismissal and redundancy. (Age discrimination covers all ages not just older workers, it is possible for younger workers to be discriminated against). The regulations apply to all workers, including office holders, police, barristers and partners in a business.

There are four types of age discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination - an employer refuses to offer a job to an older person.
  • Indirect discrimination - can occur when a policy, practice or procedure disadvantages an older employee.
  • Harassment - any unwanted conduct, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment to an individual related to age.
  • Victimisation - unfair treatment of an employee who has made or supported a complaint about age discrimination.

Myth: You can no longer hold a retirement party or send cards to a colleague who is retiring.

Reality: Colleagues still can send cards and hold parties, after all retiring employees may have worked for the company for a long time and given loyal service.

Ageism in recruitment

Ageism is discrimination or unfair treatment on the grounds of a person's age. Employers should not include age limits in job adverts and should avoid using phrases which could suggest they are looking for a particular age group, for example "ten years' experience required", or "enthusiastic young people". However, employers may ask for an applicant's date of birth, but this should be kept on a separate form from the application and must not be used as a deciding factor in offering someone a job.


Many older workers have skills, experience and knowledge to share, and often look for volunteering opportunities. Volunteering offers a way for people to give back to the community and to keep active once they have retired.

Volunteers are those who carry out unpaid work usually for a charity, voluntary organisation or a fundraising body. Volunteers are not entitled to the national minimum wage as they don't get paid other than travel or lunch expenses, and therefore they will not be classed as workers. Volunteers do not have a contract of employment but often will have a volunteering agreement.

Employer-supported volunteering is a programme in which employers assist employees in volunteering. Often employers see the benefits in supporting volunteers as they can gain skills and experience outside of the workplace.

Employers should have a policy which sets out how they will meet the needs of both the business and employee.

Rights at work for grandparents to care for grandchildren

Under UK employment law grandparents generally have no rights to paid or unpaid time off to care for their grandchildren.

Parental Leave

In very limited circumstances grandparents may have the right to Parental Leave if they have adopted the child or have a residence order made in their favour giving them parental responsibility. Parental leave is for employees to take time off to look after a child and there is no right to be paid for any time taken. Employees must have one year's employment service and leave can be taken up to the child's 18th birthday.

Time off for dependents

All employees have the right to reasonable Time off for dependants to deal with emergencies or unforeseen matters involving someone who depends on them for caring responsibilities. This could be to deal with a breakdown in childcare or if a child falls ill or is taken into hospital. It could also be used to deal with caring responsibilities for older relatives or parents who may be ill.

Employers do not have to pay for this time off, but some employers may under the terms and conditions of employment.

Flexible working

Every employee has the statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. If accepted the request will make a permanent change to the employment contract, unless a temporary change is agreed. There are different forms of flexible working, for example homeworking, temporary contract, part time, flexitime or job sharing. Older workers may choose to request a more flexible work pattern due to caring for grandchildren/older relatives, or choosing to work part time before retiring.

Requests should be made in writing stating:

  • The date of the application, what changes to their working conditions they are seeking and when they would like the change to come into effect.
  • What effect they think the requested changes would have on the employer and how, in their opinion, any effect could be dealt with.
  • A statement that this is statutory request and if they have made any previous application for flexible working and the date of that application.

Department for Work and Pensions video - Fuller Working Lives: What, How, Why?

Hear from employers about the advantages of taking age management in the workplace seriously.