It’s about broadening our perspective and allowing workers of all ages access to the same opportunities, believes Sally Evans, speaker at the upcoming AHRI inclusion and diversity conference.
How prevalent is ageism in Australian workplaces?
Nearly a third of Australians perceived some form of age-related discrimination while employed or looking for work, starting as early as 45 years of age. That’s according to a Centre for Workplace Excellence study at University of South Australia from 2017.
But where are the ageist attitudes coming from?
Without wishing to shame them too much, it appears that men and young people are more likely to exhibit ageism, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Melbourne. Among people under 30 years of age, ageist views were mostly found to be around succession, such as the idea that “most older people don’t know when to make way for younger people in the workplace”. In fact this age group are twice as likely to hold succession-based opinions than people over 50.
Sally Evans, Chair of LifeCircle, a social venture that helps people that care for family and friends who are dying, and member of the EveryAge Counts and the Consumer and Industry advisory groups, says that there is a common misconception that if an older person stays in a role, they are preventing a younger person from being able to work. “Ironically, exactly the opposite is true,” says Evans. “The more people that are employed, the more cash flows through the economy, which means the more employment opportunities there are.”
Although Evans says ageism is invariably against older people, she is quick to point out that younger workers can also bear the brunt. “There is the notion that as we get older, we get wiser, but this diminishes the experience that young people have. Classifying anyone because of their age, holds them back from experiences and opportunities.”
One of the other major effects of ageism against older workers, Evans says, is that they are being managed out of the workforce, and being forced into early retirement through redundancy. But Evans believes preventing a sizeable portion of the Australian population from participating in the workforce is a big mistake.
“Most businesses in Australia today aren’t realising the benefits of attracting older customers. Disassociating ourselves from ageing makes us blind to the consumer opportunities that this market presents.”
So what are some of the ways organisations can work to stamp out ageism? Evans identifies three key interdependent areas: training, flexibility and performance management.
If older workers are failing to upskill, it could be that they aren’t afforded the same training opportunities as younger employees. “There is a notion, which is supported by research done by the Benevolent Society, that training should be for younger people. Businesses actually should be ensuring that workers’ skills are relevant and continually updated, and that applies to anybody. The idea of lifelong learning is an attitude that benefits everyone.”
Flexibility is one of the rewards that comes from possessing relevant and appropriate skills, and Evans thinks this too should be approached in the same way for workers both young and old.
“Just as younger people need flexible working programs to bring up their children, older workers need flexibility so they can undertake activities they enjoy, or to care for dependents.
“Whatever the needs of workers, we need to look at it through the same lens – whether you’re a full-time student and need to work around study, or you want to maximise your income and optimise your hours, or if you’re an older worker and want to stay in the workforce because it adds value to your life but you want to scale back the hours.”
Evans says it takes management’s commitment to enable transition from one way of working to another and provide training to give people the skills they need to work flexibly.
“What I observe in performance management currently is that people are rewarded for turning up and delivering particular commercial or strategic results. Instead, we should be supporting people who have thought through how work fits into their life and what they enjoy doing.”
Allowing people autonomy over their career gives them greater satisfaction in their work and leads to increased engagement. Evans says that there are long-standing benefits for employers as well.
“By rewarding older workers, by allowing them to transition to what they enjoy doing, employers are actually helping their future selves. We are all going to be in that position one day.”
Learn more about ageism in the workplace and other issues affecting inclusion at the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Conference in Sydney on 3 May. Early registration closes 5 April.