Your employment will automatically come to an end when you reach 69. It’s unusual to see this wording in employment contracts since the abolition of the default retirement age in 2011.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t force an employee to retire at a specific age, you just have to be very careful how you go about it, as Oxford University found to its cost.

Paul Ewart was Head of Atomic and Laser Physics and had worked for the University for 38 years when he lost his job simply because he reached 69.  He argued this was unlawful direct age discrimination. His employers argued that the retirement age was objectively justified, or in legal jargon it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim as it increased diversity in the workforce.   On the face of it that seems a reasonable argument. The Equality and Human Rights Commission lists a number of legitimate aims which may justify forced retirement, including promoting access to employment for younger people, sharing out employment opportunities fairly between the generations and ensuring the mix of generations of staff so as to promote the exchange of experience and new ideas.

The flaw in the University’s argument was that the retirement policy had only led to 2 – 4% more job opportunities, and so was not actually achieving the legitimate aim identified. Such a trivial number did not justify terminating the careers of older staff. Paul Ewart therefore won his Employment Tribunal claim, although the University is considering an appeal.

To avoid Tribunal claims, employers need to think carefully about why a particular retirement age is appropriate and necessary. They should not adopt a blanket approach across their whole organisation but look at each particular role. It may be easier to justify retiring a pilot at 65 than a check-in assistant, for instance.

With people living longer and healthier lives, employers need to revisit any pre conceived ideas of age.  One of Paul Ewart’s former colleagues won the Nobel prize for chemistry at the age of 97, 30 years after being forced to retire from Oxford.