Having spent five years as Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan is across the issues that older Australians are facing. But is the landscape really as bad as we believe? Or are we blind to a lot of what actually goes on?
What was the biggest change you witnessed during your time as Age Discrimination Commissioner? Is there any one thing that did not happen, that you wish had occurred?
The biggest change I saw as Age Discrimination Commissioner was the increase in coverage in all forms of media of the existence of damaging age discrimination in the workplace. Not only did specialist publications, such as YourLifeChoices, give a lot of informed coverage of these issues, I was delighted that radio stations all over Australia were always keen to talk to me, and usually got massive responses from listeners. TV and print were also prepared to run stories, including high-level research reports as well as individual stories. What did not happen was the positioning of the economic implications of our increased longevity as a top priority for attention by governments. I have recommended a new cabinet role, a Minister for Older Australians, to ensure this priority and create coordination of employment, health, welfare, training and industry policies across Government. I am still waiting on a Government response to this proposal.
Do you think there is more that the older generation of Australians can do to improve their chances of equality in the workforce?
Older people themselves need to take action and be prepared to change. Older workers often do need to upgrade their skills and should see this as valuable professional development rather than as an embarrassing admission of being out of date. Older workers also need to adopt positive workplace attitudes to younger colleagues, and aim to develop intergenerational teams, rather than expressing irritation with the way some younger workers approach their tasks. Be prepared to mentor them and pass on the benefits of your experience, and be prepared to learn from them. Perhaps the most important thing to do as we get older is to look after our health. While some employers are committed to developing healthier workplaces, individuals need to take responsibility for their own health, because unaddressed health problems can cause people to lose their jobs too.
Is there an initiative that the Government could embrace that would help older Australians live a better life (i.e. with more social equity) in retirement?
I hope the Federal Government will roll out across the nation the Skills Checkpoint plan it has piloted at my suggestion. This is a scheme that facilitates any worker approaching middle age to get a skills analysis and some practical advice about where the local jobs are and what training is needed for them to qualify. This Checkpoint should be carried out before the older worker is retrenched, or finds that they are physically unable to continue their current role. In the case of workers in declining sectors, such as car manufacturing, they should get this advice so they can transition to a growth sector before their current plant closes. The cost of the Checkpoint could be shared between Government and employers, where they are large corporations, or in the case of small business by Government, with the individual making a contribution if possible. It would be a sound investment of public dollars and it would greatly support individuals to have longer and more productive working lives and thus save more for retirement.
What is the biggest mistake we make as a nation when it comes to our older workers/pensioners?
The biggest mistake we make as a nation is failing to realise that older people, in their 60s and even 70s, are often fit, healthy, keen to work and ready to take on new roles. The old stereotyping of over 55s as past their prime and of no use to employers must be abandoned. As a nation we continue to waste the great human capital held by capable, experienced older people who are willing to work. Pensioners are often willing to take on some part time or casual work to supplement their Age Pension and continue to contribute, but complicated benefit eligibility rules often make this not worth doing.
What is more concerning: the way in which older Australians are discriminated against in the work force or the general acceptance by society that people have a use-by date?
Although I have seen some progress in employment of older people over the last few years, ageism is still a huge blockage and causes poverty and despair to too many people. The prejudice in the workplace however, reflects a deeper community prejudice against older people. There is too facile an acceptance by the community generally that older people are inevitably slow, resistant to change, prone to serious health problems, and generally not up to much, in fact, past their use by date. Evidence shows all these prejudices are wrong and as generalisations, without basis, but they persist. The Federal Government needs to develop vast, long lasting communications campaigns to address these misconceptions. Government should work in partnership with business and community organisations to re-educate our whole society on the realities of older people and the great value that represent.