Departing Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan yesterday addressed the National Press Club for the final time, promising she wouldn’t “hold back” about Australia’s ageing revolution.
Throughout the speech, Ms Ryan raised strong points about the need to recognise and embrace the economic potential of older workers, as well as people with disability.
“Because against powerful and persistent economic and workforce data demonstrating great potential gains from increasing workforce participation of older people, and despite growing evidence of the willingness and capacity of Australians to lead longer working lives, we proceed too slowly to dismantle the barriers,” said Ms Ryan. “At the same time, we continue to overlook the capacity and desire of people with disability to make economic contributions. This is our loss and, more importantly, theirs.”
The 2015 Intergenerational Report suggests an even greater demographic revolution than most people could imagine, with the life expectancy of men and women to be 95.1 and 96.6 years respectively, by 2055. The report also expects the number of Australians aged over 65 to double by 2055.
“It is not surprising that in Australia, as elsewhere, governments are daunted by the prospect of looming fiscal crises, especially with respect to pensions and health services. It is surprising and worrying, however, that so little has been done to mitigate such crises.”
A Grattan Institute study estimates that by increasing the mature age labour force participation rate by 7 per cent, the GDP in 2022 would increase by $25 billion. Several other studies also support these claims.
The benefits of employing older workers is undeniable, especially considering the knowledge, experience, skills and productivity they bring to the table, but only a few businesses are embracing the older worker.
“Moving on to the Federal Government and successive Intergenerational Reports, what should we make of the predicted Federal Budget blowouts related to the ageing society?
“The National Commission of Audit found that even allowing for a decline in the proportion of people receiving the full pension, a rise in the number of people receiving the part-rate pension will see the proportion of older Australians eligible for the Age Pension remaining at 80 per cent over the next 40 years.
“So, without change, there is a serious future threat to federal budgets.”
Ms Ryan believes that we need to extend the working lives of most Australians. The mindset of the Australian worker has changed, with the majority now wanting, and needing, to work longer.
Unfortunately, these Australians are faced with a gap in the system not experienced by previous generations – a gap between the age of 55 and 70 where there are a lack of jobs and retraining programs in place to support the longer wait for the pension.
“All older workers – and not just those in the auto industry – should be given every opportunity to transition to growth industries,” she said.
“In addition to the opportunities arising from the digital revolution, the long term structural shift in employment towards services industries continues. healthcare and social assistance; professional, scientific and technical services; education and training; and retail trade are projected to provide, over the next five years, more than 600,000 jobs.
“So, with these ideas and possibilities occupying me, I was very pleased when a little over 18 months ago, on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I began the Willing to Work National Inquiry into employment discrimination against older Australians and Australians with disability.”
Ms Ryan met with thousands of people throughout the inquiry and received hundreds of submissions. The result of the inquiry is a comprehensive picture of older people and employment in Australia.
The inquiry found discrimination against older people is widespread and systemic, with ageism being a barrier at every stage.
“Older people are shut out of recruitment. Individuals told the inquiry of having applied for hundreds of jobs only to be told by recruiters that they were ‘over qualified’, or ‘too experienced.’ In many cases they received no response at all,” she said.
“Making it to a job interview did not ensure a fair go either. If an older individual did make it to an interview they were typically met by a lack of interest from the interview panel as soon as their age became apparent.
“Older people who are in the workplace often experience isolation, age-related bullying, and are denied promotion and professional opportunities.”
As a result of the inquiry, successive governments have funded programs to address the exclusion of older workers, but the inquiry did find that some government policies are actually creating disincentives.
Doing nothing is not an option. Ms Ryan believes that more needs to be done to promote the benefits of employing older workers.
“Establishing a Minister for Longevity to bring government attention at the highest level to the economic dimensions of age discrimination and to coordinate whole of government action,” she said.
“This Minister would lead policy to realise the economic potential of older people and broaden the dialogue about ageing beyond aged care.
“My approach to tackling age discrimination in the private sector is not so much legislative, but to provide positive examples, showing not only that it can be done, but it is being done and that those businesses doing it are profiting.”
Dr Kay Patterson AO will succeed Ms Ryan as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Alistair McEwin will become Disability Discrimination Commissioner.
“We must, as a society, move more rapidly to accommodate the big societal changes, the big shifts that have occurred in human existence. None is bigger than the ageing revolution. To respond to this, we must remake our sense of human life, its extent and possibilities,” Ms Ryan said.
“Our Australian way of life has delivered great things to many of us: equality of opportunity, security, wellbeing. Those great things now must be extended to all as they live throughout their extended lifetimes.
“This is as big a challenge as we have faced in Australia. I urge our new Prime Minister and his team to make our successful longevity a top priority.”
You can read a transcript of speech at www.humanrights.gov.au.