Age discrimination on the part of some employers in Britain is "an ongoing and significant problem" which costs the UK economy billions of pounds a year, according to a new report.
Figures from the National Audit Office (NAO) found that fewer than 70 per cent of over-50s are in work, compared with more than 75% of those under 50, a disparity it described as "significant".
However, it added, the gap between the proportion of older people in work compared to the general working population has also narrowed by one per cent over the last year.
The NAO report estimated that of the 2.7 million over-50s who are out of work, between 700,000 and one million want to find a job but are facing barriers such as age discrimination, low levels of skills , health problems, low confidence and negative attitudes to employment.
Older people also have relatively low levels of participation in most forms of training and education, which they need to compete more effectively in the labour market.
This inactivity costs the British economy between £19bn and £31bn each year in lost output, reduced taxes and increased welfare payments, the report estimates.
In particular, almost half of jobless over-50s were receiving incapacity benefits, many on a long-term basis.
The report also highlighted substantial regional and local variations remain in employment rates for older people and in the number who are economically inactive, with areas like the North East and Wales having particularly high levels of inactivity.
Legislation to outlaw such discrimination is expected in October 2006 but there has been a delay in issuing for consultation the draft regulations. However the Government has announced a national guidance campaign in advance of the legislation to further enable employers to adopt age positive employment practices and to encourage the recruitment, training and retention of older workers.
Nevertheless, the NAO said it was vital that the government takes further steps to help older workers into employment, adding that as people live longer, the implications for the economy of continuing high levels of economic inactivity would be serious.