Not the retiring type: Meet Northern Ireland's older workers after professor's landmark ageism case win
Belfast-born nuclear scientist Professor Paul Ewart won a landmark ageism case against Oxford University this week. He tells Laurence White how younger colleagues are fully behind him and why science and his Christian faith complement each other, while Leona O'Neill meets four people still working well into their seventies
Belfast-born Oxford professor Paul Ewart is amused at the publicity his victory over the august university's compulsory retirement age policy has gained.
After fielding several interviews and having to put back our chat for an hour to fit in yet another, he jokes: "Now I know what it feels like to be a celebrity. I have told my wife that I fancy going on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! or Strictly Come Dancing, although I think I might hold out for a place on Love Island."
But his challenge to the university was far from a laughing matter. It cost him £30,000 of his own money in legal fees and now Oxford University is considering appealing the employment tribunal's ruling which came down on Professor Ewart's side.
"It gets frightening now if the university appeals," he says. "I could end up bankrupt if I was to lose the appeal. I would not have any choice but to respond if the university appeals, for even if I don't respond, I would still be liable for their costs. That is how our legal system works. A very rich employer will always be able to outspend an individual."
Obviously, the universities' employment justified retirement age policy is something which Professor Ewart strongly opposes. It requires dons to retire at 68, although they can apply for an extension.
The former head of the university's atomic and laser physics faculty was granted a two-year extension to work until he was 69, but when he applied for another extension in 2017 it was refused and he was forced to leave the university.
The policy is designed to enable younger academics to progress up the ladder by forcing those of retirement age to leave.
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But Professor Ewart says it is a flawed approach and the employment tribunal judge said it was not a "proportionate" method of achieving the university's stated aim and found he had been discriminated against unlawfully on grounds of his age.
Professor Ewart is seeking reinstatement and says that he has been supported by his immediate colleagues, who have argued that he should be allowed back.
"There is no breakdown in the relationship with my colleagues," he adds. "My disagreement is with the policy and system and the upper echelons of the university, who are determined to stick with this unfair policy."
Professor Ewart had worked at Oxford for 38 years and says that his work was blossoming when he was forced to retire.
"I had written 15 papers in the previous two years and was involved in a multi-university project to design ultra-efficient engines and was about to start another five-year programme."
He points out that his work benefited, rather than hindered, younger academics. "People in my position have research momentum and bring in grants," he explains.
"In the two years from when I reached 67, I was responsible for bringing in grants for employing four post-doctoral students - two each at Oxford and Cambridge - and four graduates."
He was involved in groundbreaking and world-leading work in the field of lasers. These are used to measure changes in atoms and molecules exposed to flames, combustion or high-temperature gases.
The measurements using lasers are a hundred times better than using any other method, but high-grade lasers are expensive to use.
Professor Ewart found a way of using cheap lasers, such as those used in supermarket scanners, or CD players, to carry out the measurements and this had created a lot of interest in China.
"They were interested in how they could be used to measure air pollution and could have resulted in a joint institute. This work can be picked up again, but things move quickly in this field and it would be a shame if we were to lose our position at the head of the field," he says.
Professor Ewart has come a long way from the working-class home he was born into in east Belfast. "I was the first person in our extended family to go to university. I did not come from a privileged background.
"Right from childhood, I was interested in science. When I was about eight to 10, I was interested in astronomy and then in my early teens I read a book about quantum theory and found it very interesting.
"I remember being asked in school what I wanted to be and I said 'an atomic physicist' and everyone laughed. Even I didn't really believe I would ever be one, but that is what I turned out to be."
Professor Ewart, whose wife Marlene comes from Bangor, was educated at Queen's University Belfast, where he obtained a BSc and a PhD in physics and then went to work at Imperial College in London before taking up a position as a lecturer in Oxford.
He is keen to dispel the commonly held view that science and religion are incompatible.
"I am a Christian and following Christ is central to my life," he says.
"It does worry me that people think that science and religion don't go together. They are are compatible and enhance on another.”
He admits that his parents were not terribly religious when he was growing up and when he found Christianity as a teenager.
“They did send me to Sunday School, which I hated. My parents did come back to faith in their later lives, but during my formative years I was on my own in the family as a Christian.”
Again he jokes: “It has been said that some people are inoculated as children with a small dose of religion, so when they grow up they never catch the real thing.”
He argues that many scientists are devout Christians — pointing out that around one-quarter of the 20 or so members of his faculty would fall into that category.
“There are some very interesting areas where science and Christian faith interact and overlap. God wants us to keep asking questions. Science can explain how things work, but there are deeper philosophical questions which only faith can tackle, such as ‘Is there a purpose to life?’, ‘Why are we here?’, ‘Why does life exist?’ and ‘Why is the universe fine-tuned to allow life to exist?’ Faith and interaction with God gives us an insight into why things are as they are.”
He adds: “Science can be used as an excuse not to think more about God.
“The lazy approach is for people to say that science tells us that God doesn’t exist.”
As the convenor of the Oxford Forum for Science and Religion and the chair of Christians in Science, the father-of-two and grandfather of five, says: “There is no conflict between believing in God and science — both are aspects of the same reality.”
Returning to the subject of his legal case against the university, he says that his motives were not simply selfish.
“It is about other people, as well, who want to have the dignity of employment and have that sense of satisfaction in their lives, especially when work means so much to them,” he says.
“For some people, to have work taken away leaves an enormous hole in their lives and that can lead to depression.
“I don’t feel that personally, but at that level it is important that this ageist policy is challenged.”
‘After three months I was bored out of my head’
Belfast man Drew Beckett owns property business BeckettHanlon Worldwide Property.
The 72-year-old, who has three children with wife Carol, retired at 52, became bored and went back to work selling property. He opened his new, hugely successful business as other men his age were retiring.
"I own and run BeckettHanlon," he says. "There are two parts to my company. One is that we sell international property in the likes of Spain, Portugal, Majorca, France and Florida. The second part is to build the franchise, teaching other people to sell international property. We have 23 partners on board.
"We have just opened our first office on the Lisburn Road. We are the only overseas property shop in Northern Ireland. I have been running BeckettHanlon for six years, but have been selling property for 21 years."
Drew says early retirement didn't suit him.
"My background is in financial services. I worked for Zurich at a high level," he says.
"I retired at 52 and my wife and I bought a beautiful villa in Spain and moved there. After three months I became absolutely bored out of my head.
"I am just a worker. I love what I do. I started to think what else I could do and I started to sell property.
"I won't retire. I am just not going to. I get bored. I have always worked for myself.
"In 2020, I want to put 10 or 15 partners on to the 23 we have already got in the franchise. I'm not stopping.
"Age is not a barrier for me. I am just going to keep on working. If you love what you do, it doesn't seem like work.
"I don't see it as a job, even though it is. I am a grafter - it keeps me young."
‘Working helps keep the mind active’
By the age of 65, most of us will be thinking of slowing down and eventually retiring, but not these four Northern Ireland people, who say they are just getting started and have no intention of giving up their life's work.
Londonderry man John Wasson is 71 years old and is happy in his role as harbour radio technician at Foyle Port in the city.
The father-of-three, who lives with his partner Nuala just across the border at Greencastle, says he will continue to work "as long as I'm fit".
"I have always worked and I enjoy working," he says. "I like to have something to get out of bed for. I work at the Foyle Port, on the harbour radio. My fundamental job is that I communicate with any ships that are coming into the port.
"We would organise for pilots to go aboard and, when they come into the port, we organise for people to go and tie the ships up and that sort of thing. It's basically a communications job.
"We are the only people who are there 24/7 at Foyle Port. We also look after the place. I work 12-hour shifts. I work three days on, three days off, three nights on, three nights off, in that pattern. It is not labour-intensive work at all. It is basically office-based."
John says a heart attack in his fifties changed his career path completely.
"I haven't always worked at the harbour. I had a pretty major heart attack when I was in my early fifties. I had my own plastics business and I think the stress of that brought on the heart attack. That put paid to the business.
"At that stage, I thought that I would probably never work again, but I got back on the horse and started working in the harbour part-time and eventually went full-time. I have been there almost 20 years now and I love it.
"I have no notion of retiring at all. As long as I am fit to do it, I will do it. I don't have any major private pension, so it gives me a standard of living that I wouldn't have if I was retired. I enjoy travelling and I do take additional holidays. The port are very good to me.
"There are more labour intensive jobs at the port, such as crane driving, that wouldn't be suitable for someone my age. My job is more about how the grey matter is working.
"Working does keep the mind active. A lot of our work is computer-based and it does help that the sea and sailing is a great interest of mine. I live just across the border in Greencastle and we can see the ships passing by from home."
‘I intend to go out in the fast lane’
Bangor-born Dianne Gibson, a mother-of-two and grandmother-of-three, is a hospital liaison adviser with Belfast-based Willis Insurance and Risk Management.
The 77-year-old's full-time role involves ensuring the company's private medical clients are given the best possible care across private hospitals across Northern Ireland.
Mrs Gibson left school at 17 to join the Ulster Bank - and has not stopped working since.
Asked about retiring and taking life a little easier, she said: "I'm not made of that mettle. I am so used to working that I could not sit at this stage and spend my time going to coffee mornings.
"I would rather be out there giving the best advice I can give to people.
"I was a Bupa account manager in the health sector when I was around 50 years old and then went into a brokerage.
"It was my job to make sure that my clients had the best attention quickly, with the best consultant in the best place and that is also what I am doing now.
"It's a consultancy post, which means that I am on 24-hour call to give advice to any of the clients that need it."
Dianne says that if you enjoy work, it doesn't feel like a chore.
"I have been working since I was a teenager and have had a very interesting working life," she says.
"It was easy for me to just keep going and that is what I did and will continue to keep going. I will go out in the fast lane. I have no intention of retiring.
"I think that, if you enjoy what you do, it's not work at all. It's a pleasure to do it. I would have a very deep care for people and I love my job."
‘I’m in and out attics like a mouse’
Derry man Charlie Page has been running his pest control business for 48 years alongside his wife Eileen. The 77-year-old father-of-five, who runs Northwest Pest Control, says he is busier than ever and spends his days either up ladders or down sewers.
"I turned 77 there at Christmas and there is absolutely no sign of me retiring," he says. "I am as fit as a fiddle.
"Since I left school, I have never been off a day in my life. I left school on a Friday and started working on the Monday - and I have been working ever since.
"In my job, every day I get calls coming in from people needing help with pest control, some of them emergency calls, some serious enough. We work with rat and mice infestations and across the board with regards insects also. Every insect infestation you could name, we would be out treating it."
He adds: "It's quite hard, labour-intensive work. I am in and out of attics like a mouse. I'm up ladders and down working in sewers. It doesn't take a wrinkle out of me.
"The most serious problems come from the sewers, that is where you'll get the bigger rats, so I'm down there a lot. I don't mind at all, in fact I love it. It puts me in a better mood when I have something to do."
Charlie says there is no way he is hanging up his boots anytime soon.
"I have absolutely no intention of retiring. I am going to keep on rocking until somebody finds me at the side of a road or stuck down the sewer."