On the BBC news this morning there was a short report about concerns that the UK tax agency (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) has sent threatening letters to elderly people demanding that they pay their overdue taxes. The letters say that the HMRC has the power to come and remove furniture and property to the value of the overdue taxes.

The tone of the news piece was that this was not fair on elderly people. After all, they’re old… But it did raise a question in my mind. As a society, over the last decade or so, we have worked hard to remove all forms of discrimination. Some HR practitioners I encounter like the work I do on different generations, but feel powerless to do anything about it, as they feel so constrained by anti-discrimination legislation that they feel they can do nothing based on the age of staff or potential recruits (they’re wrong, of course – the law is not nearly as limiting as most HR professionals thing it is).

It’s correct that we don’t discriminate. It’s right that we don’t judge between people simply on the basis of age, race, creed, gender, disability or other physical (or mental) factors.

So why then do we have this news report? If you haven’t paid your taxes, the HMRC should have the right to make you pay. And if you refuse, they should be able to exercise their legal powers to ensure the country gets its money. And it should make no difference if you’re a woman, a Muslim, a parent, black, in a wheelchair, Polish or Catholic. Or, if you’re old. Age is not an excuse – at least, that’s what we’re told.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim ‘discrimination’ when it suits you, and then ‘I’m old’ when it doesn’t. We either believe that discrimination is wrong. Or we accept that sometimes, with good cause, it actually does make a difference that you’re old (or young), or female (or male), or pregnant, or religious, or whatever…

This problem (of how we treat older people) is only going to get more difficult and complicated as the Baby Boomers reach 70 years old and start feeling entitled to being treated as “old”. They’ve spent most of their lives ensuring they get the best benefit of each lifestage they enter – and also legislating against the excesses of their own youth. And I fear they’ll continue to do this in their later years. They’ll be saying, “you can’t force me to retire just because I’m old” one day, and “but please Mr Taxman, go easy on me, I’m old” on the next. You can’t have it both ways.

Now, what was it they said about death and taxes?

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