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
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.
“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.”
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.
More from The Age Paradox series on AAA:
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