One of the hardest questions we are asked at the Third Age Employment Network (TAEN) is: "If the business benefits of employing all ages are so obvious, why is there a problem? The same question could equally well be asked about other types of discrimination, such as gender, race and disability.
In October 2006 new regulations outlawing unjustifiable age discrimination in employment and training will come into effect. But no-one should see them as a 'silver bullet solution to ageism.
Why is that ?
After 25 years of anti-discrimination legislation we still have a gender pay gap and an employment gap affecting certain ethnic and other minority groups.
More often unconsciously than consciously, we all hold preconceptions on many subjects. It is easier to hold on to the stereotypes than it is to put in the work to correct them.
Prejudice speaks louder than facts. Thinking about demographics, age and working life is a relatively new concern compared to gender, race or disability. So preconceptions on age tend to be all the more endemic.
As one recent press feature on ageism put it: "It is in the ether. It is in the water. It is sitting in the boardroom near you."
We saw ample illustration of this in the debate on mandatory retirement ages. During a recent BBC radio phone-in, callers swore blind that they had no age prejudice.
However, everything they then said showed an implicit belief that taking on and training a 50+ new employee would yield a smaller business benefit than from a 25 year-old. Why so?
The same assumption lies behind the argument of employer umbrella bodies (but not necessarily the majority of their members) that ending mandatory retirement ages will have a counter-productive effect because businesses will be frightened to recruit someone over age 50.
Why should they be less frightened of recruiting a 25 year-old who may equally turn out to be a duff appointment?
The positive evidence about productivity, costs and business pay-back from employing people of all ages has been on the table for five years. It is presented by major retailers, financial services, smaller companies who are Government Age Positive Champions, active Members of the Third Age Employment Network and the Employers Forum on Age.
It is also being reinforced by a major new Government campaign for employers. The 'Be Ready' campaign began last month and is aimed at providing practical HR information to 1.4 million employers in the UK in the run-up to next year's age discrimination regulations. We should be realistic about the results. By definition there will be little impact on all those who do not think it is relevant to them, who see nothing amiss.
Judging by a recent survey of the views of business leaders by the Department of Trade and Industry, this will be the case for the great majority. The evidence of the last five years appears to have had little impact..
A relevant parallel is that the first and most difficult step in tackling addiction is to emerge from denial. The same is true in tackling our preconceptions and stereotypes.