Age discrimination in employment and in recruitment process has transformed from a minor issue into a fundamental problem for the Australian economy. Is it time for human resources to take the lead?
On WYZA, the digital platform for Australians over 50, the comments sections following stories about age discrimination in employment make fascinating reading. A woman working in the Catholic education system says she dyes her hair to ensure no grey is ever showing – not for her own self-esteem, but so she never reminds the executive that she is over 50.
Another commenter mentions the fact that job ads invariably begin with a description of the workplace being ‘young and vibrant’, a signal to older workers that they do not belong. One man, with experience in senior executive roles and boasting an MBA, says he has received only one interview request from 109 job applications.
Some would put his comments down to the bitterness of a regularly rejected job applicant. But those in the know, including industry experts, academics and older workers rubbing up against today’s recruitment industry, say he’s not far wrong. The recent Willing to Work report, released by the Australian Human Rights Commission, confirms that older people are often barred from work because of underlying assumptions, stereotypes and myths associated with age.
“It is unthinkable that people who lose their jobs in their 50s may live up to another 40 years without paid employment,” said Susan Ryan, Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, who is lobbying employers to adopt strategies to make workplaces more inclusive for older workers.
Cut off, cut out
Professor John Piggott from UNSW Australia Business School, also Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), says the human resources profession has a lot to think about as it heads into the next several decades.
“The impression one has is that, with many jobs, when a recruitment agency is hired to find people, there is an implicit age range that might cut off at 40 or 45,” Piggott says. “That makes it difficult to test the validity or even the feasibility of expanding our mature labour forces.”
Others are more blunt about the current performance of the recruitment industry. “It is an industry that needs massive disruption,” says brand-management executive David Tarr, who is currently partnering with specialists to develop a new way forward for mature-age workers.
“What the Australian economy requires is a skills-based workforce,” Tarr says. The Federal Government has spent a lot of money investing in the creation of that, but the fundamental problem, says Tarr, is finding people to deliver that.
“It boils down to the creation of smart tools to give people objective information so they can make informed decisions about who is right for the role. Instead, decisions are made for subjective reasons, held by individuals who often do not have any training or experience in the assessment of people’s knowledge, experience, skills and ability.”
The changing landscape
From the CEPAR, a clear picture has been developed of our demographic future. In the three decades to 2009 there has been a 29 per cent increase in life expectancy at age 65. By 2050, there will be around 7.2 million Australians over the age of 65, which is 2.5 times the current number. But the working-age population (15-64) will only be 1.2 times its current size.
The combined effects of increased life expectancy and a top-heavy population will mean that the workforce will need to reflect what is going on within the general population. It seems clear that only those organisations adept at attracting and retaining older workers will stand any chance of achieving growth in such an environment.
“Policy changes, such as the increase in the aged pension to 67, will provide financial incentives for people to keep working. As well, people are adjusting to the idea that if they’re 65 they have a life expectancy that – potentially – takes them to 90-plus. There is increased community awareness that people who are living longer have to work for longer, too,” says Piggott.
But the fact is, older people are up against it. Over a quarter of Australians over 50 have experienced age discrimination in the workplace in the past two years. That was the finding of an age discrimination study in 2015 conducted by the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Added to this is the fact that three in five people who are over 50 and looking for paid work were discriminated against due to their age.
General employability and opportunities for promotion and training are negatively affected as a person ages. HRC research says younger colleagues perceive that mature-age workers are slow to learn and have outdated skills.
One-third of people who experience age discrimination in employment give up looking for work as a result. That is a dire sign for any economy hoping to develop a skills-based workforce.
Consider the experience of David Tarr, whose jobs have included senior roles at the Sydney Opera House and Destination NSW. Two years ago, at the age of 51, he decided to send his CV out to recruiters to test the waters. On each occasion he got a call-back from the recruiter, mostly within an hour of sending his CV.
“We would have a conversation and everything would be very positive; the recruiter would tell me I was just what the client was looking for. Then we would organise a time to meet,” he says.
After a few meetings though, Tarr recognised a pattern. Once he met the recruiter face-to-face, there would be a moment where the recruiter would visibly almost withdraw from the conversation. “There was a stark contrast between their attitude on the phone and how things were going face-to-face,” he says.
“I realised I was being discriminated against because of my age. And if I was being discriminated against, there must be an enormous number of people out there facing age discrimination in employment. I realised those negative attitudes around ageism are being reinforced through the recruitment industry.”
According to experts, Tarr is correct. Whether consciously or subconsciously, age discrimination in employment is being supported and promoted by recruiters and some of those working in human resources.
Only a few businesses and a couple of industries are relatively advanced in their thinking about mature-aged workers. The one business that comes up again and again is Bunnings for its redeployment of mature-age and experienced tradespeople into highly-knowledgeable floor staff. The go-to industry for positive examples of employment of mature-aged workers is, perhaps unsurprisingly, aged care.
“The average age of our staff members is about 47,” says Sam Galluccio, general manager, human resources with Catholic Healthcare Limited.
“Our problem is at the other end; younger people generally don’t perceive this as an industry they want to enter.” Still, the youngest employee at Catholic Healthcare is 16, and the oldest is 84. This means there could be four or even five generations working side by side. The attraction, motivation and retention of all of those different individuals and age brackets is a juggling act that, when done well, the entire human resources industry could learn from.
“We don’t want to create a strategy that only caters for one generation and disenfranchises another,” Galluccio says.
“Our reward and recognition programs have to be out of the box. They have to be flexible and capable of meeting all needs. For instance, we’ve been trialling a points-based reward and recognition program where people who do great work are able to redeem something of their choice, that suits them and their tastes.”
Galluccio says motivations for younger staff are completely different to those of more mature workers. At one end it is about income, career prospects and opportunities such as travel. At the other, it is about flexibility, principles and satisfaction. But for all groups, it’s a feeling of being respected and valued.
“Everything we do is about being flexible and catering for a wide range of age brackets at work,” he says. “Expectations within the workplace change alongside those within the community, and you have to be mindful of that. When you look at employee benefits – is long-service leave or grandparent leave more important than maternity leave? They should all be equally valued by the organisation. You must put in place infrastructure where any employee of any age can easily find out what programs are available specifically for them.”
Attracting and retaining mature-age workers involves a mindset shift, says Carolyn Gallaway, CEO and founder of diversity consulting and recruitment agency Diversity Dimensions. Mature-aged workers are typically managed towards retirement, rather than the next stage of their career.
“We repeatedly see that where human resources professionals and line managers have open and transparent conversations with mature-age workers around their intentions, it creates a win-win,” Gallaway says. Unfortunately, there’s a reluctance to have these conversations “It is not an approach to age discrimination in employment that is well developed in many organisations. It needs to be, and human resources professionals must be supported to have these conversations.”
Successful mature-aged workforce strategies begin with a thorough understanding of the true value of the older worker in the context of the broader business strategy and the corporate appetite for a diverse workforce, she says.
Time for a fix to age discrimination in employment
“Myth busting is needed and highlighting the positives of older workers to other generations and the value they bring to the organisation,” Gallaway says. Organisations must commit to showcasing the experience and knowledge of mature-age workers through mentoring, knowledge transfer, modelling of their reliability and more. “That is when the focus shifts to opportunity rather than risk,” she says.
It begins with the gatekeepers: the human resources officers occupying the frontline, who have a responsibility to create a truly skills-based workforce equipped for the 21st century. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity that human resources can ill afford to ignore.