Age discrimination in the UK has become such a problem that most people have a window of only five years in their working lives during which they are considered to be neither "too young" or "too old" for a job.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that age discrimination was much worse for people over 40, with a third of workers over 50 experiencing some form of discrimination at work.
One in 12 under-35s have been told they were too young for a job. But twice this number believe that they have been rejected for being too young but have no evidence to support their claim.
Only those aged between 35 and 40 escaped discrimination, the CIPD said.
"Ill-founded bigotry has shrunk the perceived perfect age to a lamentable half a decade during an average working life of nearly 50 years," the report says.
Fully 15 per cent of the 600 employees and retired people surveyed said they had also experienced discrimination during a job interview, while 20 per cent said that they had been discouraged from applying for a job because the advert specified an age restriction.
The depressing statistics come despite the fact that age discrimination will be outlawed in December 2006, placing it on a par with other forms of discrimination, such as sex or race, and giving employees the right to bring legal cases against their employers.
And according to the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), UK employers could be exposing themselves to a staggering £73 billion worth of claims if they are not fully prepared for the new age legislation.
“Waiting for legislation - which in itself could trigger knee-jerk, damage-limitation responses - will be too late, and may leave companies exposed to legal risks,” warns the CIPD.
Yet last October, a report by Cranfield School of Management found that more than four out of ten employers (43 per cent) still use age limits and age related words in job advertisements while almost half (45 per cent) continue to use an employee’s age as a basis for redundancy – both of which will be illegal under the new legislation. And almost one in four organisations still discriminate against older employees when it comes to training and development.
The CIPD report says that employers must start changing their ways now. Figures suggest that only a third of organisations have a policy on tackling age discrimination in place, while a further 38 per cent say they will introduce policies in the future.
But another third of companies say that they either have no intention of introducing such policies or don't know when they will introduce them.
The CIPD also warned that organisations fixated by youth are in danger of alienating millions of older customers.
The CIPD’s Dianah Worman said that age discrimination is causing serious harm to UK business because judging people by age creates “artificial problems in the labour market”.
"With a shrinking younger population and a growing older one, employers will have no alternative but to change,” she said.
"Employers will require an understanding of how to manage, recruit, reward, train and motivate employees across all age ranges, and at all stages of their careers. In addition, the whole concept of retirement will have to be reassessed.”