The Age Paradox: Older people want to work, but age discrimination stands in their way

Meet Ron Di Giorgio, one of the many Australians struggling to find work because of their age. In this in-depth series, Jackie Keast examines the ageism rife in recruitment, and emerging ideas to change it.

Ron Di Giorgio in his home in Newcastle, NSW
Ron Di Giorgio in his home in Newcastle, NSW

Walk into Ron Di Giorgio’s house in suburban Newcastle and the first thing you’ll notice are the knick-knacks and curios covering every flat surface of the house: the kitchen table, the coffee table, even the stairs. There are samurai swords, art deco signage, a gramophone, vintage children’s toys. Ron says he’s always been a collector, but after losing his job 12 months ago, he now has to sell some of his collectibles as a source of income.

“I’m not looking to make a huge amount of money on stuff, I just want to turn it over and make a little bit,’ he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Di Giorgio, 52, has worked for over 30 years as a maintenance electrician. For the last 10 years, he did contract work in the mining and manufacturing sectors. However, when the last project he worked on was cancelled, all the contractors on the job were sacked. Since then, it’s been a struggle for him to find work.

“It’s not for a lack of trying,” says Di Giorgio, who estimates he’s sent out over 250 resumes in the last year. “I started off really pushing for work but after eight or nine months of doing that, I was over it. I’m just sick and tired of doing it, because there’s no one out there who wants you. I haven’t had one call back,” he says. “It’s depressing. It gets to you.”

Di Giorgio is on Newstart, but it doesn’t cover all his expenses. Selling his collectibles at the weekend markets and doing odd handyman jobs for family and friends are the only things keeping him afloat.

“I keep the bills away. That’s all I do. The dole, the $250 a week, that’s my house loan and little bit left for petrol. I have no money for food and no money for bills,” he says.

Di Giorgio has a partner, Judy, but they don’t live together. Judy works part-time and is on a pension. She looks after Di Giorgio by making him dinner every night but it’s difficult for her to support the both of them. Di Giorgio also has two daughters, 22 and 18. While they’re adults, both still need to occasionally rely on him for support as they study and begin their careers.

“They still need money, they still need help. You don’t lose that responsibility. That’s another stress that goes onto you, you sort of feel like you’re not doing your job, by not looking after them.”

The unemployment rate in the Hunter Region is the highest in NSW, at almost 12 per cent, with Newcastle and Lake Macquarie sitting at 8.4 per cent. “The number of people getting sacked at the moment is just incredible, especially electrical,” says Di Giorgio.

Disadvantaged by age

Di Giorgio thinks his age puts him at even worse disadvantage in this already tight market. “When I was in my 20s or 30s, I could pick up a job next week. These days I don’t even get asked,” he says.

As part of the requirements for Newstart, Di Giorgio has had to apply for jobs outside of the electrical field that he may also be eligible for. Recently Mission Australia, a Job Services Australia provider, called Ron with an opportunity to do some labouring work on a residential building site. He accepted. However, later that day, they called him back to withdraw the offer, saying the employer thought he didn’t have enough experience.

“What experience do you need to shovel a bit of dirt, really? They look at the fact I’m 52 years old. They want young blokes who are fit, who will break their backs for them. Maybe I won’t. They don’t know you until you work for them, until they give you an opportunity,” he says.

The stress and pressure of looking for work has taken it out of Di Giorgio. After 12 months of looking for full time work, he’s all but given up. “I don’t care anymore. If I make a bit of money here and there just to live, that’s enough. I’ve given up looking for work, because I know there’s none.”

Di Giorgio says he would happily work for at least another 20 years if he was given the opportunity. “It’s a joke, talking about retiring people at 68 to 70 years old. That’s wonderful if you’ve got a job that’ll take you there. But most people won’t have a job that will make it that far.”

Barriers for people over 55

Tim Adair
Tim Adair

A 2014 study by the National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre found that 96 per cent of people aged 55 to 59 who were retrenched ended up retiring. One cannot assume that these people would have retired anyway. The figures seem to reflect the difficulty of finding work at this age.

“The average number of weeks for an unemployed person aged 55 and over to find work is 67 weeks, while for an unemployed person aged 15 to 54 it’s just 38 weeks,” says Tim Adair, director of the Productive Ageing Centre.

“There are certainly a number of barriers that people over 55, or even younger than that, face when looking for work.”

Those over 55 are the most likely demographic group to face long-term unemployment in Australia. From a global perspective, fewer 55 to 64 year olds work in Australia than in the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.

Discrimination on the basis of age is one major barrier to workforce participation. A recent study by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that over a quarter of Australians aged 50 years and over had experienced some form of age discrimination in the last two years.

Discrimination was most likely to occur when looking for paid work. Nearly three in five job seekers reported being discriminated against and of that figure, a third then gave up looking for work.

Susan Ryan
Susan Ryan

“It’s very clear that subjecting people to any kind of prejudicial behaviour and attitudes day in and day out will certainly destroy their sense of morale and their capacity to be productive workers,” says Susan Ryan, the Age Discrimination Commissioner of Australia.

The Human Rights Commission’s study found many employers and recruitment agencies told candidates they were too old for the job, despite the fact it is illegal to do so.

However, indirect or subtle forms of exclusion were most common, such as candidates being told that they are “over-qualified” or being the butt of jokes about their age. Other forms of discrimination, such as not considering candidates at all, are harder to measure.

Ageism rife in recruitment

Both Susan Ryan and Tim Adair note that the recruitment sector, in particular, is notorious for ageism.

“I’ve had conversations with recruiters who say, ‘we’re only sending employees under 50, because we know that’s what the employer wants’. Then when you discuss that with the employer, they will say ‘no, we didn’t send that instruction’,” says Ms Ryan.

Another study by the commission found commonly held stereotypes about older workers were that they were inflexible, unmanageable, short-tempered and forgetful.

Attorney-General George Brandis requested the Human Rights Commission undertake a national inquiry into employment discrimination on the basis of age. The inquiry, called Willing to Work, is part of a larger plan by the government to address the economic challenge of the ageing population and promote increased participation of older Australians in the labour force.

According to the 2015 Intergenerational Report, by 2055 the number of the population over the age of 55 will more than double. This has implications for tax, infrastructure and services. However, these potential strains on the economy are predicted to rectify themselves if older workers continue to participate in the workforce.

The focus on increasing older people’s economic participation is not without warrant. Modeling by Deloitte Access Economics for the Human Rights Commission has shown that a 5 per cent increase in workforce participation for workers over 55 would contribute an extra $48 billion to Australia’s GDP.

“The business case for looking at experienced workers is very strong. If you’re excluding people who’ve turned 50 or 55 just because of their age, then you’re excluding a lot of talent, a lot of experience, a lot of corporate knowledge,” says Ryan.

“We bring in many overseas workers on working visas of one kind or another and yet we have this huge pool of experienced workers who are being left out of things.”

Government initiatives

As part of a push to boost the number of older workers, successive federal governments have sought to raise the pension age. Current law will see eligibility lifted to age 67 by 2023 and the current Federal Government has proposed it be raised to 70 by 2035. This will see the need for many to remain in the workplace for longer than they would have previously.

Ryan sees the need for these changes. However, she warns of dangers to the taxpayer if employers’ attitudes towards older workers don’t change in line with it.

“If you lose your job in your 50s and never get another one, you could spend 40 years or more living on government benefits; first the unemployment benefit and then the age pension. And if you’ve stopped working at that age too, then you are unlikely to have substantial superannuation, particularly women. It’s a very grim outlook,” says Ryan.

In 2014, the Federal Government introduced a wage subsidy called “Restart”, offering $10,000 over two years to employers who hired employees over 50. The employees must have been unemployed for over six months. By April 2015, it was reported that only around 700 people had been employed through the scheme. As part of the 2015 budget, the Government will shorten the amount of time to receive the subsidy to one year.

Ryan says the Restart program has the right intention and that $10,000 could be quite attractive to small and medium size business. However, she says that money would probably make no difference to larger corporations.

“I’ll be interested to hear from employers whether they see a case for wage subsidies or tax incentives. I’m not at this stage convinced that’s the direction to go in,” she says.

Ron Di Giorgio says that the Restart incentive is aimed at the wrong target. “I reckon they should give that money to me, so that I can retrain to get another job. It’d give me an opportunity to find other work. I can’t get work in my industry because there’s none,” he says.

Di Giorgio says there is lots of work available for truck drivers. However, the cost of sitting for a heavy combination licence is around $2000. He says he’d be interested in getting into the rail industry, but he can’t do that without a Rail Safety Induction card, which costs $250. While that may not seem like much to some, it’s more than Di Giorgio has spare.

“For the opportunity to try a job, you’ve given up every bit of money that you’ve got. You can’t risk that. I’m not prepared to risk that,” he says.

Ideas to bring about change

A skills program is one proposal that Ryan plans to put to government as part of the Willing To Work inquiry. The proposal, called Checkpoint, will allow those over 50 to visit a TAFE or vocational training institute to get a skill assessment. Ryan says this will be particularly helpful with future career planning for those who may need to change sectors in order to continue working as they age. This may include those who may need to move to a less physically demanding job or move out of an industry where jobs are becoming scarce, such as car manufacturing.

“I think if we had a concentrated effort at midlife and made it easy and straightforward for people to have a look at their own retraining needs, we’d see a much better result,” she says.

Through the Willing to Work inquiry, Ryan will also receive other ideas for proposals from employers and labour market specialists about what really needs to change. The inquiry was due to report on its finding midyear.

“Having a job in our sort of society is an absolute building block for having self confidence, economic independence, networks of friends, a sense of person and a sense of making a contribution,” says Ryan. “We value jobs. We say that everyone has the right to work. And if people don’t have jobs when they want to work, you can see the devastation that they go through.”

However, what it will take to change employers’ attitudes about hiring older workers remains a million, or indeed, billion dollar question.

The Age Paradox is a series of articles by AAA journalist Jackie Keast written as part of her Master of Arts (Journalism) at the University of Technology, Sydney. 

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Tags: age-discrimination, Dr Tim Adair, employment, human-rights-commission, mature age employment, national-seniors, national-seniors-productive-ageing-centre, Restart, susan-ryan, workforce discrimination,

10 thoughts on “The Age Paradox: Older people want to work, but age discrimination stands in their way

  1. I think that people over the age of 55 should be allowed to have a “Personal Award”. This document would set out the terms and conditions under which a person is prepared to offer to obtain a job. e.g. a person may be prepared to work less hours per week, at a payrate less than an Industry Award. He/she could also present other advantages to the employer such as sick leave (older employees generally have very generous sick leave provisions due to time in the job and this is a definite disadvantage to employer), annual leave, public holiday provisions, long service leave, etc. The question of WorkCover is also a problem for older employees as they may be more likely to have an injury. Perhaps the government could provide this by way of disability/newstart/pension which they would probably get if unemployed anyway.
    The “Personal Award” could be stamped as approved by an authority.
    The present system of accumulative awards is too restrictive and for people over 55 should be made more flexible.

  2. It wasn’t that long ago that people were encouraging early retirement at 55 either by attrition or by offer of redundancy to make way for the youngsters. It was all about a fai go. So, many of our grey nomads towing caravans and boats rolled off into the setting sun.

    Now, being mentally alert and physically active is supposedly the best way to stave off illness in older people.

    But if you are over 50 and choose work as your stimulant, its almost impossible to get a job in your desired profession. So if you become depressed as a result of not being able to find paid employment and as a result your quality of life is compromised, you are likely to become a greater burden on our costly healthcare system. Now is that still a fair go. I don’t think so. In fact, I will go as far as to say that the paradoxes that mitigate against the gainful employment of us over 50s is very unAustralian.

    What do over 50s want? They want choice, to work part time or full time, to work at the level of the experience or not, to work in their area of expertise or retrain. They want to feel valued as people. They want their expertise and experience to be respected. They want to contribute to the economy to some extent by paying tax, self funding their retirement, taking responsibility for their health etc etc As a woman told me the other day, over 50s want to do what they want to do…just like any other growing majority group.

  3. I am 65 and still working in aged care because young people don’t want to, it’s not a career it’s ,dirty, hard mental and physical work for pay that is less than a host of jobs carried out with no responsibilities and done by teenagers. It’s rewarding but young people want the rewards to be decent wages and working conditions, when my generation give up this work and we don’t have the $400,000 + to live in these establishments we won’t have to worry we’ll be able to work until we drop off the perch.for my 40 years plus and all my experience I will have very little to show for it so I have to continue working.

  4. I am over 63 and unemployed since 5 years, I have a real health problem with Hip arthritis and have been denied DSP like some other older people in this country. They want me to look after work and I have to report every two weeks. It is very clear I will never get a job it is all about money! Living on the dole with a illness is even harder and easy to get homeless. No one really cares !

  5. It seems that the recruitment agencies are infested with Irish Backpackers, who having been in the country for 3 months, then demand to see evidence that I (a 4th generation Australian) have a right to work in Australia.

  6. I’m 53 I have physical and mental problems I lost my job as I wasn’t able to do it properly. I have been knocked back for the DSP and now live in the dole i recently lost my rented house as my dole wasn’t enough to cover the rent. Isold everything I have to stay as long as I could but am in a tent the dole isn’t enough to live anywhere. Sharing is not an option as I have mental problems etc what is to become of me? No one seems to care. I’ve contributed to society now they throw me away.

  7. I’ve just turned 52 and feel your pain Karen as I’m currently eyeing off the tent in my rented home’s shed as the next roof over my head.

    I was retrenched in January of this year from a media position after 21 years with the company/companies. The silence from my job search efforts no longer has me baffled though – just demoralised.

    I’ve re-trained in another industry but my job search seems to be meeting yet another wall of ageism. I suspect these young recruiters are just using dead letter office websites like Seek and Indeed to “fish” for the right applications: preferably cheap and young. I suspect too that if you’re over 30, let alone 50, ageism in recruiting might also be keeping you living on dwindling severance or savings prior to the surrender to the Centrelink pittance.

    I do hope your situation has improved Karen.

  8. I am worried silly about not having a roof over my head when I am older. I can see my savings/superannuation running out and I have never been a real spendthrift. I have been unlucky in life though despite working hard. The government should stop letting overseas workers take our jobs. Both Liberal and Labour are just as bad. Bill Shorten ensured Australian workers on a mushroom farm were replaced with Asian workers and Labour also wants to give jobs to refugees. I see the healthcare system going backwards in regards to standards as they are employing people from very different cultures who don’t understand truly what is required to perform safely in the workplace. What cheeses me off too, is that they are not just taking one job quite often, they are taking two. I cannot believe how stupid both parties are because they give away Australian land to overseas investors, they give away our jobs too. Other countries protect their citizens so much better and I am pretty sure their citizens would get up in arms if we started to take their jobs and land. Only the very brightest students from overseas should be offered jobs here through a scheme with a limited number of places, that way the univerisities still attract overseas students but they have to work so much harder to assimilate into the Australian work culture.

    I also think the government is so short sighted that they do not look at the overall picture. If they keep bringing in more and more people they will need Centrelink benefits along with their family members at some stage. If they think Centrelink spending is bad now, it will blow out further still. The people who are coming here are not just coming here temporarily they want to live here permanently. People like me who are over 50 genuinely want to work. I suspect what will happen in the future is that there will be some sort of uprising as more people lose their properties or even cannot afford to eat. My elderly neighbour does not turn on her light at night, and I wonder if one night she may have a fall, break her hip and die possibly due to having to penny pinch.

    Politicians should try and live on $250 per week so that they can start to understand what it is like for unemployed people over the age of 50. But there again they would not understand the desperation and disappointment that many people over 50 feel when they keep missing out on work.

    I suggest after speaking with the Anti-Discrimination Commission take employers who discriminate against you through them. They provide more protections than what people think.

  9. Age discrimmination is the worst, choosing to do the right thing does not gain anything but hurt & not getting hired.

    I chose to keep my dying husband home instead of the alternative of divorcing him & putting him in a nursing home. I took great care of him due to my experience as an RN.

    He has passed away now & I can’t get a job. I am facing age discrimination as well as taking care of a Brain cancer terminally ill husband. We had two kids together that i raise as I was taking care of my dying spouse. I made a vow In sickness & in health. I’m not sorry, however, now I’m paying for doing the right thing.

  10. Same problem – I turned 50 in March and have been looking for a job for a about a year now. For most of the last ten years I was looking after my elderly mother. She’s since been placed in a nursing home. Now I’m on the dole, 50, and no experience. I have to report to my job network member twice a week for “supervised job search”. I can do this at home. Showing up twice a week for an hour doesn’t get me a job. The government saying that the dole is easy to live on – are you f’ing kidding me! I would really like to see them living on the dole – you try living on $200 a week!

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