There’s never been a better time for a conversation about ageism in the workplace, writes Dr Marlene Krasovitsky.

As Australia’s economy rebuilds from months of restrictions, job vacancies are at record highs. Older workers have been filling labour shortages in a wide array of industries. Given there are hundreds of thousands of older people who would like more work than they have, the signs may appear encouraging. But it’s not time to celebrate yet.

As borders slowly reopen, the labour market will likely begin to tighten. If what we know about ageism holds, older workers who have stepped into jobs may be the first to be shown the door when younger workers become more readily available.

Dr Marlene Krasovitsky

That might seem like an illogical move on the part of employers. But the sad reality is that in many workplaces across Australia, employees, and people who are trying to get into work, are judged not on their capacities, but on their age.

On 1 October this year, EveryAGE Counts, Australia’s national campaign against ageism, held the country’s first Ageism Awareness Day. Although our event was virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, hundreds still participated to listen and tell their stories. And while the cases of discrimination they shared were varied all had the same negative impact.

We heard time and time again how stereotyping, name calling, and dismissive attitudes are the thin edge of the ageism wedge. They directly lead to situations where older employees are overlooked for promotions, excluded from work social events, and allocated lesser responsibilities based on their age. In some cases, older workers told us about having their hours cut, being demoted, or getting unfairly dismissed because of their age.

Our Ageism Awareness Day ambassador, entertainment icon Monica Trapaga, shared her story of being dismissed from Play School on account of her age. A few years later the same thing happened when she and fellow cast members over 40 were shown the door at Channel Seven’s Better Home and Gardens as part of a general “freshening up”.

There is no way we would deem it OK for talent to be cut from a show based on their gender, race or sexuality – but age is deemed an acceptable excuse. It’s time we start questioning that.

Unfortunately, unlike other forms of discrimination in the workplace, there is still a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about what ageism is. This means many of us second guess ourselves when judging whether we have witnessed or experienced ageism. And that makes it very hard to respond.

As part of Ageism Awareness Day, EveryAGE Counts commissioned a national poll that revealed 82 per cent of older Australians who experienced ageism did not take any action in response with 27 percent saying it was too hard to prove and 24 per cent saying they didn’t know how to respond.

This lack of understanding is what is making it hard to remove deep rooted ageism from within our community.

There is a common understanding that giving workers specific tasks based solely on their race is not acceptable, that assuming a worker can’t be taught a new skill because of their gender is wrong, and that denying a person a promotion as a result of their sexuality is discriminatory.

But assuming older workers can’t operate new forms of technology or are unable to undertake training is often treated as a given, not as discrimination. Lines get blurred.

That’s why we believe raising national awareness about the existence of ageism and its effects is so crucial.

Unfortunately, unlike other forms of discrimination in the workplace, there is still a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about what ageism is.

Because the fact is the consequences are harsh. A report by the World Health Organisation recently found that older people who held negative views about their own ageing live 7.5 years less, on average, than those with positive attitudes.

And while ageism most directly impacts older workers, it also costs everyone else. When we exclude older workers from the workforce, we limit and, in some cases, deny them the ability to contribute to the wider economy.

The OECD estimates that $4.5 trillion could be added to the GDP of OECD member countries if they were all to match New Zealand’s leading 78 per cent employment rate for over 55s. A report from Deloitte in 2012 indicated $48 billion would be added to Australia’s GDP alone. And this is without even factoring in the myriad benefits researchers are finding associated with multigenerational workplaces.

Ageism has always been morally wrong, but it is increasingly an unsustainable practical problem as well. The percentage of Australia’s population aged over 65 doubled from 8 per cent to 15 per cent over the past 50 years. We cannot continue to be wilfully blind to a form of prejudice and discrimination holding back the potential of millions.

Dr Marlene Krasovitsky is campaign director at EveryAGE Counts

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