Ageism – it’s not OK

We’re gearing up for the next big social revolution: tackling the most ‘insidious’ form of discrimination of all

by Keryn Curtis

Above: Elizabeth Broderick – Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Aged Discrimination, Australian Human Rights Commission

After more than three years as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick’s term is coming to an end.  Following the passage of the sex and age discrimination legislation amendment in late May, a separate statutory office for an Age Discrimination Commissioner is being created within the Australian Human Rights Commission and Australia’s first dedicated Commissioner for Age Discrimination will commence on 1 July.  

Ms Broderick spoke with Australian Ageing Agenda ahead of her final speech as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination at The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 21 June 2011

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner as well as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick has had her work cut out. 

“It’s been absolutely fascinating and I have really enjoyed it but the role really does need someone full time,” said Ms Broderick.

“There are four key roles for the Age Discrimination Commissioner.  They include education and awareness raising; research to ensure we have a strong evidence base for building education campaigns; developing policy and working with the government to ensure their policies aren’t discriminatory.”

“The fourth key role is advocacy, especially for the rights of older people.  Because ageism and age discrimination does exist,” she said.

“It comes down to age discrimination at a micro level and it happens right across the employment cycle.  It happens in recruitment where employers will define roles and use particular language to exclude older people and then in employment itself through things like less access to professional development and promotion etc. Then if you fall out of employment and need to get back into work, you’re back at the start again.” 

The great leveler

Ms Broderick described age discrimination as ‘the great leveler’.

“Unlike other forms of discrimination, where many individuals may never experience it because of their gender or their particular situation, every single one of us is susceptible to age discrimination.  That’s why we all need to get on board with it,” she said.

“And of all the forms of discrimination, it is the most insidious. Not only do people think that making an ageist comment is quite acceptable but often it is accepted by the person on the receiving end.”

“People are likely to say ok, sure and let it go. People don’t report it because we have an ageist culture where ageism is not only acceptable, it is accepted by many of the people who experience it.” 

She said that while age discrimination was increasingly acknowledged as an issue it was still at an early stage of development.

“For example, there is a very strong social movement around sex discrimination and has been for years but the movement hasn’t matured in age discrimination yet.  People tend to think it’s their problem and it leads to lost confidence and a whole range of problems like reduced ability to work and earn an income and health problems and marginalisaton and depression in some people.”

Ms Broderick said age discrimination laws were the weakest of all anti-discrimination laws.  “Before now it hasn’t had its own office of a commissioner.  It has the broadest exemptions on things like taxation and superannuation and until the amendment, there was an extra hurdle for age discrimination complaints – the dominant reason provision – that was not required for any other form of discrimination.

 “We have called for a review of the Act but it needs more than that.  We need a review of all the various laws and policies everywhere, starting with the government, to see there aren’t age caps and other discriminatory elements. The Government needs to lead by example.”

A UN Convention

If she has one sadness in moving on, it is that she will not be part of the campaign for a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older People.

“I think we are at an exciting pivotal point in establishing a convention for older people and having the debate about whether Australia signs it. Some people will say we have a lot of conventions, do we really need another one?  Some say it is dealing with a transitory demographic problem.

“But the issue is that older people have the same rights as everyone else and should be able to enjoy them in the same way. At a very straightforward level it would be symbolic and the process of moving toward a convention and the process of raising awareness and getting older people’s voices heard would be really positive.” 

She expressed concern about the recent habit of social scientists and demographers of labeling entire generations for marketing purposes.

“With these generational labels – generation X, gen Y, baby boomers – we ascribe a lot of usually negatives attributes to a whole generation of people and it really isn’t helpful at all.  For young people and older people too.”

“Ten years ago generational labeling wasn’t a big thing.  It is a marketing shorthand and it’s handy for some things but taking it too seriously can cause real problems.  

“Age should become irrelevant. Older people shouldn’t be seen as a burden.  Let’s face it, people of all age groups can contribute.  Where we shoot for is age-equality.  To be judged on merit – not age.  

“The reality is we are facing a skills shortage and people will be required to continue working or return to work and we need to address ageist attitudes.”

But Ms Broderick said she felt positive and optimistic about the future.

“We are tapping into a deep vein of concern.  There is a movement occurring, a movement for change.  People are saying it is no longer OK to speak like this or to do this.  I liken it to the women’s movement in the mid 80s.  We are in an embryonic stage but it’s a numbers game.  And the numbers are really starting to pick up.

Ms Broderick praised the passion and commitment being demonstrated by high profile older Australians like Ita Buttrose and Michael Kirby whom she described as important pioneers.

“They are important pioneers but each of has a role to play. Each of us has our own sphere of influence.  Even in our own families.  Combating ageism in your own family is a good starting point.  When people make an ageist statement we have to point it out and push back,” Ms Broderick said.

Elizabeth Broderick will deliver her final speech as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination at The Sydney Institute, 41 Phillip Street, Sydney on Tuesday 21 June 2011. Arrive at 5.30 for 6pm. Cost is $10. Phone: 02 9252 3366, Click here for registration or email the Sydney Institute here.  

Ms Broderick will reflect on her work, the different ways in which the political and business worlds have responded to the issues and the real life experiences of people who are living with this insidious and largely unacknowledged form of discrimination. She will look to a future where, when we think about a respectful, dignified and fair Australia, age equality is front and centre.

Tags: age-discrimination, aged-care, ageing, ageist, australian-human-rights-commission, baby-boomers, commissioner, demographers, discrimination-act, elizabeth-broderick, generation-x, generation-y, ita-buttrose, law, michael-kirby, the-sydney-institute, un, united-nations-convention-rights-of-older-people,

6 thoughts on “Ageism – it’s not OK

  1. You only need talk to people from organisations such as Australias peak jobs website for over 45’s Olderworkers to realise that ageism is a major problem in this country.

    Shane from Olderworkers has been banging on about ageism in the Australian workforce for the last three years an it was only when I found myself unemployed and looking for a job did I realise it was really bad out there for mature age Aussies.

    Keep up the good work Elizabeth we need you to

  2. Dear Ms Broderick,
    Unfortunately reports that highlight the problems people over the age of 45 face in gaining employment don’t assist them into work. Very little has been done by any organisation to address the issues older workers face in gaining employment, there is still rampant age discrimination that older jobseekers face every day in their efforts. We have recently completed a survey of our 10,000 plus over 45 jobseekers and they still say the biggest problem is age discrimination. Many of them have a variety of high level skills and still can’t get a look in. In an ageing population, lots more needs to be done about this or we are going to have many more older people living in poverty, and jobs going begging to overseas workers.

  3. I’m glad the outgoing Commissioner found the role “fascinating” – what a vacuous word to use.

    Is the speech about what the Commissioner has achieved in her high paying position? What are the results of her time in office?…I haven’t seen any results of her work…at ground level.

    Sounds like the old, needs more research, a committee, pass the buck..attitude. Talk Talk talk, blah, blah. More paperwork – work for well of public servants.

    What has been really done to assist older workers -and please don’t say courses/training – they are useless, and of such low value, generic to be basically irrelevant.

    We still vote, the only way to really get noticed…is to vote, we now have the numbers to be taken seriously.

    Politicians beware – all baby boomers are not rich retirees, in their own homes, with heaps of Super, travelling the world…but we do still have brains!

  4. Yes it is sad and wicked it is wide spread, many older workers have a huge background of skills, but they are pushed aside.
    A very selfish generation that has been given everything and now they turn against their elders,
    It sounds that they do not want people in companies who can think yes think; as you can see around the world that most of the problems are caused by the very stupid younger generations.
    They are easily controlled and brainwashed,.
    If it was not for the older generations many of these upstarts would not be enjoying the life they have to day their parents and grandparents fought in wars.
    Age discrimination what they call Ageism is wide spread in Australia it is the worst in the world, and many recruiters do discriminate they say they do not but it is well known and if the industry is finding things a little tough then good because most people have had a gut full of the useless so call recruitment industry, it is time for them to topple and it will happen.
    Often recruiters are staffed by silly young girls who have no understanding of the real world, or how to communicate with an older person their mind is incapable of making a proper decision and they do not wish to help you, always the poor excuse they have no work but if you are smart, it is easy to work out who their clients are and contact them direct, and if they refer you to the agency then do not bother working for the company because you will go nowhere you if lucky will be stuck on the merry go round of useless short term contract work..
    Keep away from the recruitment industry find an employer who does their own hiring, you will suffer less stress there is nothing worse than being put down by a 20 something.. Who thinks you know nothing.
    A proper consultant should look after the people they put forward for jobs, as well as the client, but they do not because they make commission by repeat business and no matter how good you are it makes no difference
    There is nothing great about being a consultant these days it seems more like a telemarketing job they do, what they do not realize is that a good working relationship between the client and candidate will help their business in the future.

  5. Lets start by clearing up the myth that mature age is 45 and over.
    Im 35 and have been classified as mature age by 3 major recruitment agencies ( these particular agencies are the main ones that recruit and place in the industry Im interested in working in). In a phone interview with one agency I questioned why 35 was classed as mature age? the response was “these days if your over 30 agencies consider you mature age”.
    I queried isn’t that age discrimination? She replied “No thats how its been for at least the last 10 years” what is this Logans Run!? Is my wrist marker flashing?

    So the media reports a shortage of skilled people in an industry…
    I notice agencies re-running ads on seek and they still havent found candidates…
    Yet I want to work and learn the role AND have work history, transferable skills and references..shouldnt they be signing me up on the spot to help their client, the industry and me the job seeker?
    Nope. Instead a ’20something’year old account manager with an admin degree pigeonholes me as a secondary choice to those who are school leavers or under 30,im told I have to seek advice and training seperately from other applicants’ (ie” you need to go through our mature age dept”).When did mature age become a Special Ed. class!?

    A worker who WANTS to work and learn is a candidate..period. they are not a ‘middle aged ‘worker, a ‘white collar’ worker, a ‘gen xyz’ worker, a ‘muslim/asian/african/indian’/etc worker or any other label, Simply a human being with drive and initiative.
    It matters not if your 16 or 60, if your physically fit, show up on time, put in the effort and willing to learn that makes you a prospect. Everything else can be learned.
    For too long HR dept and recruiters have dismissed candidates based on an unjustified misconception- those over 30/40/50/60/70 cant learn new things, are behind the times or at an age where they are likely to question operational procedures or companies policies( which can be a good thing) creating waves for their client.
    If the discrimination commissioner was actually doing something beneficial, they would be forgetting about endess reports and seminar discussions and actually look to implementing laws to parliment to
    a) make mature age a redundant or derogative term
    b)set up a rating system for recruitment agencies based on things like volume of equal opportunity intakes, placement success rates, discrimination cases raised them etc- make them earn their rating.
    c) provide real incentives for companies who take on workers over 45 (tax breaks, free upskill training courses) not wishy washy election campaign initiatives
    As many have responded here once you hit 30 try going direct to companies you want to work for and circumvent recruitment agencies altogether.
    Your chances of being taken on are vastly improved.

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