End in sight for workplace age discrimination

With demand for workers the next big economic challenge, the campaign has begun to stamp out ageism in the workforce and ensure older workers will play an active role in the nation’s future

Pictured: Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Susan Ryan AO

By Keryn Curtis

A dramatic cultural change in our society is urgently needed to address deeply held age discrimination in the workforce before there is an economic crisis, says Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan.

Ms Ryan was commenting on a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report that found that older workers, as young as 45, are experiencing discrimination in the workplace, especially at the critical time of re-entry to work following a job loss or unemployment.

“In a country where we are constantly being told there are skills shortages, this finding is an indictment on the mindset of many people making recruitment decisions,” said Commissioner Ryan. “It highlights that we have to move urgently away from the discriminatory thinking that 45 means people are ready for the employment scrap heap.”

Ms Ryan said employers and society generally, including governments, were still “working off templates from 100 years ago.”  

“When the age pension was first introduced over 100 years ago for people at age 65, most people didn’t get to claim it because they were dead. And clearly we’ve moved on from there but this whole 65 thing is still there in the thinking and the legislation and the practices and it is completely out of step with the modern world.”

Ms Ryan, who was a pioneer of anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, including the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action Act 1986, said the older worker debates reminded her of the debates around employment choices and pay for women nearly forty years ago.

“Where did we get this idea that between 60 and 80, we can’t do anything constructive?  It’s completely wrong.  There’s absolutely no evidence that most older people – and certainly not people aged as young as 45 – fell into the age-based stereotypes such as being slower, less technologically savvy, less flexible or less trainable.

“It reminds me about the debates we had in 70s with the women’s movement. People would say, women are not suited to senior jobs; women can’t do particular tasks; they’re best suited to nursing or teaching; women are no use after they’ve had a baby because they’ll want to stay home with their children…”

“And one of the arguments was that these views discriminated against half the population. Our society had to ultimately change those views and by and large they have.

“And generally speaking, we are on a similar path with discrimination against older workers, only with this one, the arguments are stronger because this form of discrimination can apply to 100 percent of the population because every one of us is getting older.”

Commissioner Ryan warned that, in most cases, it is simply age discrimination to say that a person is too old to undertake the duties of a job. “Employers need to be aware that the main criterion for employing a person should be merit.”

Instead of reinforcing the damaging stereotypes against mature age workers, Ms Ryan said employers should see the economic advantages of widening the pool for potential employees to include those older workers who are capable and experienced. 

“On top of creating financial and personal problems for these discarded older people, relegating people to the unemployment scrap heap, simply because of their age, adds to the economic imposts on our country in terms of welfare dependency and the costs of the associated mental health issues of being out of work.”

Commissioner Ryan said we need to celebrate as best practice those forward-thinking employers who demonstrate good, non-discriminatory employment policy and make productive use of all their workforce, regardless of age. 

Campaign targets

Ms Ryan, who came to her current role on 30 July 2011, said she would be campaigning heavily for changes to outdated workforce structures that entrench negative views about workforce participation for older people.

“We’ve had some success already.  From next year there will be no age barrier for the superannuation guarantee, which will extend compulsory superannuation contributions to employees at any age.  At present it stops at 70. That change came about largely because of our advocacy.

“Then there’s income insurance and workers compensation.  Each state has its own scheme with these so we will be talking with each of the states separately and extending direct advocacy to whoever can change the practices, including other advocates. There are a lot of people working on this already.”

“It is a top priority of my office to tackle age discrimination in the workforce. I see the employment discrimination as being so essential, because if you are forced out of employment in your fifties, there are huge knock on effects across so many areas – for individuals and families, health problems and mental health issues and income support issues.  

“We know that the Government’s Newstart Allowance [which provides financial support for people while they are looking for work] is hopelessly insufficient for anyone really but especially for people in these older age groups,” said Ms Ryan.

“We have to change the basic mindset of all the decision makers – legislators, government, human resources managers, recruiters – to accept older people on their merits in the workforce.” 

Ms Ryan said employers should remember that a great many of the world’s most successful business people, politicians and entertainers are over 45.

“We see our latest Australian of the Year, the actor, Geoffrey Rush and he’s 61 and nobody for a moment is suggesting that he should be slowing down or cutting back on work because he’s getting on! We need to break through on this.  We need dramatic cultural change to understand that most people today are living into their 80s and 90s and they are well and capable for most of that time.

“I am optimistic though; and I am working as hard as I can to achieve these changes before there is an economic crisis,” Ms Ryan said.

To see the full ABS report, click here: Job Search Experience Australia 2011

Click here to see a related story this week regarding research released by the Financial Services Council which supports the ABS findings about discrimination against older workers.

Tags: abs, abs-report, age-discrimination, age-discrimination-commissioner, older-workers, workforce,

2 thoughts on “End in sight for workplace age discrimination

  1. I am a co-owner of Australia’s only national job board for older workers – http://www.olderworkers.com.au – where all the jobs are specifically put on looking for people over the age of 45 years. While we have over 1000 companies registered and over 14,000 jobseekers. It is often difficult when trying to attract other companies to convince them of the benefits of older workers. Many companies simply won’t entertain the thought, while others will consider it worthwhile exercise to see what comes from it. Many others are simply sold on the wealth of experience, loyalty, mentoring and other benefits the over 45’s bring to the workplace. It is ridiculous to think or suggest that anybody over the age of 45/50/60 can’t be valuable in a workplace. The majority of employers do need to have a good look at themselves, but the government needs to do more to promote the benefits of older workers to employers, just talking about it isn’t enough.

  2. WE need to eradicate ageism, promote the employers of choice and good practice, and the understanding that Age and capacity aren’t linked, as Susan says it is merit, at any age! Sue Hendy CEO COTA Victoria

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