The Sunday Times

January 16th, 2011

Now we have two kinds of elderly – the wanted and the unwanted

‘Pop on a hormone patch and get over it, dear.” That was the cruel advice given by a tabloid headline last week to Miriam O’Reilly, the 53-year-old television presenter who has just won an ageism case against the BBC at an industrial tribunal. She had been dropped from a programme called Countryfile, together with three other women of mature years, in favour of two much younger presenters and was so outraged by her treatment that she brought formal complaints of age discrimination, sex discrimination and victimisation.

The whole thing was very nasty, as is always the way in the cut-throat world of screen and stage, not least in the supposedly paternalistic and politically correct BBC. At one point, according to O’Reilly, a director asked her whether it was time for Botox. On another occasion a cameraman offered her a can of black dye to spray her roots. Another director warned her that she would “have to be careful about those wrinkles when high-definition comes in”.

Jumping in and out of helicopters, climbing 60ft trees and cheese-rolling to show her physical fitness had not succeeded in proving her energy and her worth, she told the tribunal. She was sacked, a director said in an indiscreet moment, because they wanted to “refresh” the programme.

On the face of it, this looks quite clearly an open and shut case of age discrimination — and sex discrimination, too, although the tribunal threw out the charge of sexism. Television producers and directors — and most people in the media — are obsessed with youth, particularly in women. As another headline nastily put it, “Forget Miriam O’Reilly’s wrinkles — what about fatty Mark Mardell?” It’s quite true that no woman, no matter how brilliant, could appear on prime-time television looking remotely as overweight, sweaty and red-faced as he does. And it’s obviously true that viewers, and people in general, are much more forgiving of signs of ageing in men. All the same, I don’t feel there is much to celebrate in O’Reilly’s triumph. It feels wrong for the right reason: age discrimination in general is horrible, but age discrimination in any one case — such as this one — might actually be justifiable.

Admittedly, it is disgraceful that people in the BBC were vile to O’Reilly. But if, in their ghastly way, the producers wanted to refresh their show and put it on prime time, they may have been right in their view that O’Reilly might not be as much of an audience-grabber as her replacements. I’ve never heard of any of them, so I can’t tell, but television is showbiz, not Girl Guiding. Producers must be allowed to back their judgment, even if it seems unfair to some and mistaken to others — I almost called it their artistic judgment, but the proper word is commercial. By definition there cannot be proper evidence for such judgments.

Besides, O’Reilly should know that presenting is a high-risk, high-reward activity. It is ferociously competitive. No one’s entitled to hang on to a nice presenting job indefinitely. So it goes in show business. Those who want security, transparency and fairness ought to take up something else.

Predictably, having lost the case, the BBC has issued a pusillanimous apology and has promised to “ensure that senior editorial executives responsible for these kind of decisions in the BBC undergo additional training in the selection and appointment of presenters” and “produce new guidance on fair selection”. How the heart sinks. Yet more public money will be wasted on the wrong solution. In its usual confusion, the BBC is promising to be a model politically correct employer and also a top contender in the harsh market that is show business.

However, the curious case of O’Reilly did help to focus minds on the question of older people having the right to go on working for longer. Her victory coincided with the government’s promise on Thursday to abandon the default retirement age by October this year; this means that employers will no longer have the right to make someone retire when they reach the state retirement age. If they want to sack them then or afterwards, they will have to justify doing so. (There will be exceptions for some employers, such as the police and air-traffic controllers.) On the same day the government published its Pensions Bill, which will raise the state pension age to 66 for men and increase it gradually for both men and women.

This really is something to celebrate. As Ed Davey, the employment minister, said, it’s great news for older people, great for business and great for the economy. For those of us who know we will have to work well beyond retirement age (if we can) and for those of us who want to continue anyway, this is a real liberation. The idea that nature and employers are through with us at sixtysomething is idiotic. The process of ageing seems to be slowing for many people in the rich world. A lot of us will be just as useful — or useless — at 80 as we were at 40.

The advantages to the rest of society are obvious — much less crippling expenditure spent on the elderly, much more income for the exchequer, much less of a burden upon young people. The idea that there is a fixed number of jobs to go round and the old should make way for the young is Luddite.

But old people do vary greatly. The ageing process affects some individuals earlier and disproportionately for all sorts of complex reasons. Instead of letting weak employees carry on until retirement, employers will have to decide how useful they are and tell them so. Employers and employees will have to face painful facts to add to the sorrows of getting old. Many older people who are convinced they are as good as ever will be cruelly disabused, perhaps in expensive tribunals.

No longer will people talk sentimental nonsense about old people having so much to offer and so much wisdom; it will soon be clear that some old people do and some don’t. Two classes of old people will emerge — those that employers want and those that employers don’t. We will have the youthful old and the conventionally old, the active old and the dependent old. And this change will be no respecter of education or class. It will be driven by genes and the environmental accidents of long ago. This new freedom to keep on working will certainly be much fairer to old people, but it is a fairness that will prove quite harsh and will have nothing to do with feelgood sentimentality — rather like television and show business, in fact.