Age discrimination is systemic and ongoing, according to a national inquiry led by Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan.
The Willing to Work report, which was recently released by the Australian Human Rights Commission, examines workforce participation by older Australians and people with disabilities. It found that age discrimination is still a major problem, as older people are often shut out of work because of underlying assumptions, stereotypes and myths associated with age.
“It’s unthinkable that people who lose their jobs in their 50s may live up to another 40 years without paid employment,” Ryan says. She states that she is “enraged at the unfairness” that perfectly capable people are constantly being told they are too old for a job.
Like most nations around the world, Australia is in the throes of a societal shift. Increased life expectancies mean that people will work for longer and in more varied ways, bypassing the predictable three-stage life of ‘student, career, retirement’. However, workplace practices aren’t keeping pace with changing perceptions about what it means to be ‘of working age’.
In the past decade, the number of people over 45 who say they won’t retire before 70 has risen sharply from 8 per cent to 23 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). A survey from 2015 by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on ageism found that about 27 per cent of respondents had faced discrimination on account of their age. Significantly, 33 per cent of people who had experienced age discrimination gave up looking for work as a result.
“The increase in longevity has happened so quickly that many of our policies, be it employment, insurance or welfare, don’t take into account the fact that many Australians will live into their 90s,” Ryan says.
Roughly a quarter of Australia’s population is over 55, but this cohort makes up only 16 per cent of the workforce. From there, employment rates drop sharply: Only 12.7 per cent of people 65 and older are gainfully employed.
Ryan has said that if Australians are expected to work beyond 70, we have to change the workplace. Employers need to factor in reassessments of mature workers to see how they will continue to contribute to the business in terms of input, training requirements and flexibility.
The cost of losing older workers is enormous, says Ryan, who estimates a loss of $10 billion a year to businesses. The government is also in favour of keeping older Australians at work, as it would put less strain on social safety nets and contribute positively to business growth and development.
From a broader economic perspective, age discrimination is also a huge waste of human capital, says Ryan. Labour participation rates for older people remain “far too low” and lag behind comparable countries, according to the inquiry. Persistent stereotypes about the capabilities of older workers are a huge part of the problem.
Age discrimination is a complex issue, but there are ways businesses can create an inclusive workforce while maximising results. Government programs and subsidies for businesses that hire and retain older employees have a limited impact, says Ryan. The best approach is to transform how businesses view older workers from the recruitment process right through training, promotion and retirement – voluntary and involuntary.
Practices such as flexible work, knowledge transfer and mentoring/reverse mentoring programs, and transition to retirement (TTR) clauses in contracts all help retain older workers and reduce age discrimination. Studies have shown that older workers are more loyal to employers as well, which makes them prime candidates for training and skills development programs.
Senior employee role models, diversity and inclusion plans, targets or quotas, and monitoring help articulate the business case for employment of older workers.
With five generations in the workplace for the first time in history, Ryan says that businesses need to focus more on how they can use the skills, experience and knowledge of older workers to their advantage. And just as workplaces are learning to adjust to the desires of millennials or Gen Xers, so too should they adjust for the needs of an ageing workforce.
“It’s not a niche problem. It is a major demographic fact and we need to deal with it as much as we did with women, but we don’t want it to take as long,” Ryan says. However, the report does not argue for special treatment for older workers. “The best person for the job should always get it,” Ryan says. If that person happens to be over 50, then so be it.