Magazine article The Spectator

First in, First Out

Magazine article The Spectator

First in, First Out

Article excerpt

Most of us know the old joke where the regiment finds new, more sensitive ways of breaking the news of a parent's death to the ranks. Lining up the men, the sergeant-major bawls, `All those with mothers, dismiss. Private Jones, where are you going?' You could equally apply it to industry nowadays. `All those with jobs, leave the room. Smith, Wilkinson and Bloggs, where do you think you're going?'

I thought of this when, listening to In Business, Fired at Fifty on Radio Four two Sundays ago, I heard a man describe how he'd been made redundant after 41 years with the same firm. `As of now, you're redundant,' he was told brutally. He was 55 and had hoped to retire ten years later. Now he was unable to cope, baffled by his predicament, unable to think ahead and self-destructively nursing a grievance. The presenter, Peter Day, and the producer, Paul Dwyer, found others who were more positive and undergoing retraining or being self-employed.

The latter requires self-discipline. A firm that helps the prematurely redundant revealed that it can weed out those unsuited to self-employment within hours of meeting them. It tells them they have to be prepared to work seven days a week and they can't be ill. We heard from the Nationwide building society which claimed not to discriminate against older staff. The firm's Denise Walker said she valued experienced people, not just because they have what she called `corporate memory' knowledge of familiar problems and how to deal with them - but because they don't waste time reinventing the wheel.

The great purge of older workers started in America in the 1980s and spread here, particularly in the past five to ten years. Younger people were thought to be more adaptable to change, and cheaper to employ. The old rule of last in, first out, became first in, first out. All movements go too far, as Bertrand Russell once cheerfully admitted about his own disarmament campaigns.

Peter Day cord easily have gone along a corridor or two at Broadcasting House to discuss it with the BBC's director-general, John Birt, who has enthusiastically disposed of older staff. But the BBC is as secretive as the MOD when it comes to explaining itself, so he wouldn't have got very far. I have mixed feelings about this. A campaigner in the programme called for legislation to prevent ageism at work, but as a believer in the free market I'm agin it. It usually makes things worse and adds to bureaucracy and costs, as well as giving the mediocre rights they shouldn't have. …

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