Michelle Mitchell, Age UK: All the tools in the armoury

An integrated - and lengthy - campaign was the key to ending forced retirement in the UK.

Michelle Mitchell, Age UK: All the tools in the armoury

In December 2004, Age UK's predecessor organisations, Age Concern and Help the Aged, were disheartened. For 18 months, both organisations had been pushing for legislation that would outlaw age discrimination in the workplace. But the Prime Minister overruled the advice of two secretaries of state and introduced a default retirement age.

In 2005 we saw the horrific complexities of the law emerge - our fight for age discrimination legislation was successful but the retirement age loophole came into play. In 2006 we experienced the bittersweet feeling of flawed legislation on the statute books. That same year Age Concern launched a judicial review of the issue. The case went to Luxembourg and back before being decided in 2009. Ultimately it was a loss, but with the best possible judicial commentary.

During those five years we used all the tools in the armoury of a campaigning organisation. We used litigation as a political weapon, hoping to overturn the law in the courts, win important legal arguments and set precedents. More importantly we wanted to embarrass and challenge. Fantastic media work explained the case and built a army of supportive journalists. We worked with an amazing group of 60- and 70-somethings who were angry and brave enough to talk about their experiences.

Our research demolished the opposing arguments one by one and exposed the true costs of forced retirement. We commissioned a poll that was the first to estimate the number of older workers being forced to retire, which the Government had yet to do.

Campaigners and partners talked to their MPs, and more than 300 members of the public submitted their stories to the Government's consultation.

All the time, we were up against a strong business lobby. We knew it was essential to prove the economic benefits of scrapping the default retirement age. Age UK worked with members of the Employers Forum on Age to publicise a list of companies that did not use a mandatory retirement age, including Nationwide, Asda, M&S, JD Wetherspoon and B&Q.

And we had influence in the corridors of power. We always had friends in high places, but they grew in number and volume. We built the profile and political commitments until there was a sense of inevitability that change was coming.

We kept reiterating the cause. Stripping from a 65-year-old the right to work; not because of what they can or cannot do, but because of a characteristic beyond their control. There was real injustice - blameless victims facing real hardship, from professors to receptionists. As it turned out, the number of victims was far higher than we initially feared, with about 100,000 forced to retire in 2009.

We need the chance to work for as long as we choose, for the sake of our personal finances, the national finances and the future workforce employers will need.

In the build-up to the 2010 election, we made ending the default retirement age one of our key election calls. Candidates met about 3,000 activists at more than 60 public meetings. The three main parties started to make the right noises. Each manifesto mentioned forced retirement. The coalition agreement made a firm commitment, and in July 2010 the Government announced its proposals to end forced retirement.

The work continues. We need to transform employment, career and training opportunities in later life. But it is not too much to say that this campaign shifted the national mood on working longer.

Michelle Mitchell is charity director at Age UK


How has your blend of marketing disciplines changed in the past two years?

Research and evidence, policy analysis, message development and testing, public affairs, campaigns, PR and social media all play critical roles in developing integrated campaigns that deliver change. The emphasis in any campaign changes depending on how best we believe we can effect change. The biggest shift has been in the significance of social media as a channel to communicate with supporters. This has required a reallocation of resources and a change in attitude so we better engage with our target audiences.

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