New report should 'send shivers down the spine' of those aged over 49

The age at which a person is considered an older worker is now up to 10 years younger and many employers have admitted to cut-off ages when hiring ‘older’ people, new research has revealed.

Yet despite these ageist attitudes, there are more older workers in the workplace than three years ago.

The Employing Older Workers Report 2021 conducted by the Australian HR Institute and Australian Human Rights Commission found that almost half of Australian employers have admitted to a cut-off age beyond which they are reluctant to recruit.

The survey of 604 business leaders, academics and HR leaders revealed that almost a third (28 per cent) of respondents define an ‘older worker’ as 61-65 years old.

And while that may seem high, that proportion has dropped eight per cent points since 2018.

Perhaps more disturbing is the almost one in five (17 per cent) who now classify anyone between the ages of 51-54 years old as an older worker – a six per cent jump from three years ago.

However, a third also said between 26-50 per cent of their workforce consisted of workers older than 55, an increase of six per cent since 2018 and 10 per cent since 2012.

Read more: Being good at your job won’t stop age discrimination

While the workforce is ageing, the underlying ageism at the point of hiring – particularly in the public sector – is the main barrier for older workers looking to gain or retain employment across all sectors, says Australian HR Institute chief executive Sarah McCann Bartlett.

“At the same time as our workforce is getting older, our perception of what is an older worker is getting younger,” she told The Australian.

“Older workers bring experience, professional knowledge and diversity, all of which give an organisation access to a different skills pool.

“It has to be remembered that we haven’t had any skilled migration coming into Australia for over a year, so we need a larger and more diverse skills pool.

“The most important thing we can do is address the bias, often unconscious, against older workers. Ageism against older workers doesn’t even necessarily stem from negative feelings. Older people are often viewed as loyal and reliable. However, when nearly a quarter of businesses don’t actively implement recruitment practices to encourage age diversity, ageism is the inevitable result.”

Read more: Stopping ageism

Respected ageing advocate and co-chair of EveryAge Counts, Robert Tickner AO, says the findings highlight how ageism leads to age discrimination which is not only contrary to law but out of step with community opinion.

“Those policies are based on ageism and if there is one thing we can be sure of based on the evidence it is that ageism is going to potentially adversely impact on the lives of the majority of Australians in many aspects of life, and this often becomes more profound as people approach 50,” Mr Tickner wrote in his response to The Australian article.

“A further stark example is the adverse impact of ageism on Australians entering aged care as the Aged Care Royal Commission recently highlighted.

“Such ageism involves stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment based solely upon age. It comes from widespread social acceptance of false negative attitudes and beliefs about the value of older people and later life. Ageism is how we think (stereotyping), act (discrimination) and feel (prejudices, biases) about getting older and older people.

“The evidence from this latest employment survey should send shivers down the spine of every 49-year-old and all those rapidly approaching that marker in life.” 

Discrimination based on age is outlawed in every state and territory. 

Mr Tickner applauds the welcome increased rates of recruitment of older workers, but says the report proves there are ongoing breaches of discrimination laws “clearly occurring in significant numbers on a daily basis, and these breaches include corporations and government agencies which would experience major reputational damage if their breaches were publicly exposed”. 

Read more: Many see ageism as socially acceptable, but it can be stopped

“Most importantly, the reasons given for this arbitrary age barrier often given just do not stand up to scrutiny. They rest on a mix of debunked stereotypes about the capabilities of older workers, mistaken views about competition for jobs across the generations and outdated and counterproductive perspectives about who belongs in the workforce,” he added.

Some businesses have taken big steps, not just changing attitudes but also behaviour.

KPMG partners has abandoned their age-based retirement policy, which previously had forced partners to retire at 58. Such policies represent a threat to the reputation of employers in all sectors of our economy and they would do well to promptly emulate the KPMG policy shift.

Now the shift must come to the recruitment process, says Mr Tickner.

“Some older people never make it back into work because of the discrimination they face at recruitment, others are frozen out of work because of ageist attitudes and workplaces hostile to their presence.”

The aged care sector is rife with negative attitudes towards older people and EveryAge Counts says treatment of these people, exposed by the aged care royal commission, is a “manifestation of ageist attitudes and stereotypes which underpin this mistreatment”. 

Read more: Ageism is a part of daily life for older Australians

The group quotes royal commissioner Lynelle Briggs, who said, “I fear that society undervalues older people and their contribution. The acceptance of poorer service provision in aged care reflects an undervaluing of the worth of older people, assumptions and stereotypes about older people and their capabilities, and ageism towards them. This must change.”

Campaigns, such as those undertaken by EveryAge Counts and YourLifeChoices, aim to challenge myths, stereotypes, and negative attitudes about older people, and to increase awareness of ageism and its impacts.

The YourLifeChoices Older Australians Wellbeing Index 2020-21 revealed that more than 70 per cent of Australians over 50 feels much younger than their chronological age and 17 per cent of those feel up to 10 years younger.

Results of this survey fly in the face of stereotypes surrounding over-50s and aim to change the public perception of older Australians.

There’s a long way to go.

Have you experience age discrimination while trying to gain or retain employment? Why not share your experiences in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.