When it comes to work, we are looking at age all wrong

When it comes to work, we are looking at age all wrong

James Cox & Sue McGrath

A clear and compelling message was delivered by a panel of international experts and some of Australia’s leading voices on ageing and work at ‘Still on the job: the case for older workers,’ a forum hosted by the EveryAGE Counts campaign in June.  If we want to change the picture for older Australians who want and need to work, but are currently excluded from employment by ageism, then broad systemic change is needed.

We heard from Mark Keese, OECD and Melissa Grober-Morrow, AARP about Australia’s performance against OECD countries, and from the Australian Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson and CEPAR researcher Rafal Chomik on the situation in Australia.  A key point for their examinations of older worker participation is that although the number of older people in Australia looking for work has grown markedly over the last two decades, they are not finding work at the same rate. Compared to the rest of the world, Australia’s performance is no more than middling in keeping up with this important demographic change.

Around the world, populations are getting older. In Australia the number of older people (65+) as a proportion of the total population will grow from its current 16% to around 22% by 2050.  Older people will become an increasingly crucial part of the workforce as the proportion of younger people in the population overall and in the workforce declines.

Our ‘ageing population’ is often framed as a problem, but the good news is that we’re healthier in older age than past generations. We can expect to live better for longer and we should be able to work longer if we want or need to. Indeed, access to work for older people is good for health, wealth and well-being. We also know that workforces that include and draw on the strengths of older people are more productive and profitable, and that keeping an older worker does not mean losing a younger one.  Diversity, including age diversity, is good for business.

Unfortunately, many older Australians struggle to find meaningful work, or find themselves underemployed. There might be several reasons for this, but the stereotypes that older workers are past it, or worn out, or don’t have the skills just don’t hold up as legitimate causes. The biggest obstacles to work for older Australians come from negative, ageist attitudes and behaviours towards older people in workplaces and in our communities.

The forum audience shared their own experiences of ageism as their careers advanced or as they sought work as older people. Two types of experience in particular resonated: those of women who have retrained to re-enter the workforce, and those of people who have been advised to upskill and mask their age in order to find work – in each case to no avail. Humiliation, and being told that ‘you are the problem,’ is common. The experience of women also points to the potential for certain groups to be particularly vulnerable to ageism, mixed with other forms of discrimination or exclusion over a working life.

Each worker has some responsibility to prepare for their own employment, but efforts by older people are likely to be futile if workplaces are not interested or incentivised to employ them. For this, comprehensive change is needed, from government anti-discrimination and employment policy to the operation of workplaces and recruitment agencies.

Behind it all is a need to change perceptions about older people. At the moment, policies, practices and prejudices are built on the unfounded idea that older people have out-dated skills, poor health and attitude problems; and that they offer low return on investment. Over and over, research and experience demonstrates that these stereotypes are wrong. These damaging perceptions need to change and with them, the idea that an arbitrary age line is of any value in determining who is capable of and should be allowed to work.

In fact, why not take age out of the equation altogether? Age is not a reliable marker of capability. Workplace policies need to move from implicit and explicit ageist assumptions underpinning decision making to the use of capacity-based frameworks. These changes need to flow from board leadership through recruitment practices and algorithms to staff development, team building and developing age inclusive workplace cultures.

Some of these changes will be slow, but others can happen now to enable today’s older Australians to work and to set the scene for older workers and the economy of the future. There is a lot we can do! We can celebrate and learn from those companies that are leading employers of older people. We can change the automated recruitment algorithms to eliminate ageism and other biases from candidate pools. We can ensure that on the job training is available for everyone. And we can champion the strengths of intergenerational teams and multigenerational workforces.

These changes won’t happen on their own. As the forum chair Robert Tickner told us, it’s up to all of us to call for change. We need to start work now.

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