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The Equality Act is a law which protects you from discrimination. It aims to prevent people from being treated differently or unfairly on the basis of specific characteristics. The Equality Act makes discrimination on the basis of age, sometimes called ageism, unlawful.

The act also protects you from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender reassignment, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity.

The Equality Act protects you from age discrimination

There are two types of discrimination which are outlawed by the Equality Act:

  1. Direct discrimination is when you’re treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic; for example, if your local gym refuses to give you a membership because of your age.
  2. Indirect discrimination is when you’re disadvantaged by criteria that have the effect of discriminating against older people (or another ‘protected characteristic’). For example, if you can pay for an item in instalments but only if you are working, this would disadvantage pensioners.

Age discrimination is often seen as a workplace issue, but you may also face it when you’re out shopping, at the doctor’s surgery, or even when ordering products over the phone.

In some situations you may be fully aware that you have been subject to age discrimination but other times it’s not as obvious and you may not realise that you have been discriminated against.

When age discrimination is allowed

The Equality Act has an exemption for age discrimination, allowing it when it can be ‘objectively justified’. That means the employer or service provider must show why they have a good reason for discriminating on the basis of age.

For example, an employer could potentially have an upper age limit on a job where very high levels of physical fitness are required and could not be fulfilled by someone older.

See also:

The Equality Act protects you from harassment

Harassment is when you are subjected to unwanted behaviour that makes you feel intimidated, humiliated, or degraded, or that creates a hostile environment, because of your age or another protected characteristic. For example, if a nurse repeatedly made jokes about your age, which were offensive, that could be defined as harassment. This also applies if you’re offended by age-related comments made about someone you associate with, such as a partner.

The Equality Act protects you from victimisation

This is when you are treated unfairly as a result of making a complaint about discrimination, or giving evidence when someone else makes a complaint.

Public Sector Equality duty

Public bodies such as local authorities, hospital trusts and police authorities have a duty on them to prevent discrimination and promote equality of opportunity.

They should take into account the needs of people with protected characteristics, including older people, when they are carrying out their public duties and planning their activities. They should make sure that their services and policies are accessible to all and meet different people’s needs.

For example, if a local bus service is to be cancelled and that bus is particularly used by older people to access community and health services, then their needs should be considered when the decision is made.

For more detail about the duty, see our factsheet.

The Equality Act 2010: The Public Sector Equality Duty (PDF 405 KB)

What to do if you have been discriminated against

How you take action will depend on who your complaint is against. If you have a complaint against your employer, see our pages on ageism at work. For information on complaints about the NHS, see our health rights pages.

For most complaints you need to follow the complaints procedure first – in a hotel that might involve writing to the manager, for a local authority they will probably have a specific complaints process for you to follow. Make it clear in your complaint that you feel you have experienced age discrimination.

For more information about the Equality Act and discrimination, see the Equality Advisory Support Service. Contact them for advice if you have not been able to resolve your complaint.

Further information


Our Information guides are short and easy to digest, giving a comprehensive overview of the relevant topic. Information sheets and factsheets are longer with more detail, and are aimed at professionals.

You can download other guides in our series from publications

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 169 2081