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Action needed to tackle ageism in the workplace


South Australia can no longer afford to marginalise older workers, writes Jane Mussared, chief executive of the Council of the Ageing SA.

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South Australia is changing before our eyes, with greater cultural and lifestyle diversity than ever before.

Our new age profile is a significant part of this changing picture. People over 65 now comprise 14 per cent of our population, a proportion expected to increase to at least 21 per cent by 2041, and the age group that used to be lumped together as 60-plus now includes increasing numbers of people in their 80s, 90s and 100s.

This is both a medical and a social triumph. We have worked hard to achieve longer and healthier lives. Despite this, we are stuck with stereotypes of older age that don’t fit with this reality.

Nowhere is this illustrated more starkly than in the workforce.

The Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan, is in South Australia this week gathering input into the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Willing to Work Inquiry.

She told the Council on the Ageing SA (COTA SA) AGM yesterday that while more people want to work longer, the inquiry was hearing that those in their 50s and 60s – let alone 70s and 80s – were finding it harder and harder to get and to keep jobs.

The prevalence of age discrimination in employment is well documented, including in the Commission’s own work published last year, which found that more than a quarter of workers aged over 50 indicated they had recently experienced some form of age discrimination in the workforce.¹

Only one-third of people aged over 55 participate in the workforce, and unemployed older job seekers take much longer to find work than people in other age groups. A third of those who experience age discrimination apparently abandon the search for work² and it is likely that many older workers who are not technically unemployed (ie they have a job of sorts)) are significantly under-employed.

COTA SA is particularly concerned about the impact of workplace age discrimination on older women.

Professor Hazel Bateman, from the University of NSW, recently told a forum hosted by ECH and COTA SA that the chances of women facing poverty in older age were increasing dramatically due to low levels of superannuation and home ownership, lower wages, increased likelihood of being single, careers interrupted to meet family responsibilities, and longer life expectancy. Being unable to secure paid work compounds these financial issues for women, with age discrimination making it difficult for older women to add to superannuation balances or make inroads into their mortgages in the years that could be the most productive for them.

It is unlikely we will address age discrimination until we ignore age.

Mature-age workers in South Australia are doing it particularly tough. They live in the state with the second oldest population; it also has the additional challenges of the highest unemployment rate in the nation and the lowest employment growth forecast.

In a 2014 baby boomer survey and forum conducted by COTA SA and funded by the Office for the Ageing, age discrimination and workplace flexibility were of major concern.³ Respondents reported that ageism took place not just in the workplace but even as they looked for work. Many found they could not even get past the recruitment agencies, which appeared to be using age as a criteria to disqualify applicants.

Once in employment, people told us that opportunities for training were often withheld from older workers, and there was a general lack of respect for the great value mature-age workers brought. People felt that workplace culture had a big impact on how older people were viewed at work. Other concerns included the physical demands of work and balancing work with caring responsibilities.

Mature-age workers are currently seen as a problem to be solved. On and off for almost three decades, governments, industry associations, universities, not-for-profits and employer groups have developed toolkits, templates, guidance materials, checklists and other resources pitched at employers to create “age-friendly workplaces”. Yet mature-age workers consistently report that ageism is alive and well.

COTA SA wants to reframe the language of older workers, leaving behind talk about age-management and age-friendly workplaces. Older people have no desire to be seen as a special needs group in the workplace. They are legitimate participants, with considerable skills to offer.

We must revolutionise the way we structure work. We need to move to high-performance workplaces where better job design, career-long training, skill development, and a shared responsibility for health and wellbeing will be the cornerstones.

The type of policies that will help mature-age workers get and keep work are similar to those which have facilitated the increase in women’s participation in the workforce. This includes access to flexible work practices to allow for family and carer responsibilities, opportunities for training and re-skilling, investment in workplace health initiatives, innovation in physical job design and, importantly, workplace cultures where diversity (including age diversity) is valued.

Work carried out by COTA SA over the last 12 months with employers has found that some businesses are beginning to concede that, just as they are committed to tackling gender inequality, it is time to do the same about ageism. They advise that the next step is to make out the loud and clear business bottom line for change.

With older people soon to make up a quarter of South Australia’s population and its customer base, as well as being a major source of its workforce in growing industries such as health care, we can no longer afford to marginalise such a large group.

COTA SA has made older workers one of its highest priorities, recognising the central place that good work will play in the economic and social wellbeing of people as they age. Discrimination against older employees in the workplace is archaic behaviour. Unfortunately, like other forms of ageism, it remains widely tolerated and its tragic effects are poorly recognised and understood.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, it is unlikely we will address age discrimination until we ignore age. For as long as we continue an obsession with age, stereotypes will keep getting in the way of careers that should keep blossoming, re-treading and developing.

COTA SA is the peak body representing the rights, needs and interests of older Australians, with 17,000 individual members and 250 organisation members.

1 Australian Human Rights Commission, National prevalence of survey of age discrimination in the workplace (2015)
2 Australian Human Rights Commission, Issues paper: Employment discrimination against older workers (2015)
3 COTA SA (2014)



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