Ageism as a barrier to employment

| May 21, 2013

In her speech at the GAP/ACHR Conference on Productive Ageing on Friday 17 May 2013, Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon. Susan Ryan, explored how ageism is the major barrier in continuing a productive working life for Australians passing their 50s.

Despite general agreement that ageing of itself should be no barrier to employment, numerous impediments to this goal remain.

If we are to keep older people in the workforce longer and indeed, open up new employment opportunities for them, we need urgent action on various fronts.

To achieve productive ageing we should consider exactly what we mean by this term.

Vanessa Loh and Hal Kendig from the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) define productive ageing and its origins as follows:

The concept of productive ageing emerged in the United States in the 1980s, largely as a positive reaction against the dominant, ageist view of ageing as a process of declining physical and cognitive health and functioning, resulting in increased dependency and dwindling contributions.

…the concept of productive ageing recognises that individuals can and often do continue their engagement in activities that have socioeconomic value within their social context, as they age.[1]

This definition raises perhaps the biggest and most insidious barrier to positive ageing: ageism.

Ageism, age discrimination is the most significant barrier to individuals continuing productive lives beyond their 50s.

Ageism is widespread in employment and recruitment practices.

Research shows ageist attitudes exist throughout the community and certainly in work places.

Media and advertisers contribute to ageism when they use a narrow range of images of older people, most of them negative.

The ABS reports that for unemployed people aged 45 years and over the main difficulty in finding work – accounting for 18 per cent of cases – was reported as being “considered too old by employers”.[2]

The Financial Services Council corroborates this view with their 2012 survey which found that 35 percent of workers over the age of 50 who earned between $40,000 and $80,000 said that they felt discriminated against because of their age.[3]

The Financial Services Council found that almost three in ten of the surveyed older workers reported some form of discriminatory action, the most common being made redundant or laid off before others.[4] This view was backed up by the responses from employers, who noted that this was by far the most common form of discrimination they observed.[5]

In new research I will be releasing next month we found a significant number of employers who said they wouldn’t hire anyone over 50.

And this attitude is reflected in the data: one out of three unemployed people aged between 55 and 64 years was long-term unemployed in 2010-11.[6]

Generally, the older the person, the more likely they were to have been long-term unemployed: 33% aged 55-64 years, compared with 22% aged 35-44 and 13% long-term unemployed aged 15-24. [7]

These statistics add up to a shocking waste of human capital, a waste that as an economy and as a society we can’t afford.

This trend needs to be arrested and reversed.

Under-utilised older workforce

Older people do want to work.

National Seniors Australia reported that in 2009, ‘nearly two million older Australians were willing to work, could be encouraged to work, or were unemployed and looking for work.’[8]

This study identified an economic loss of $10.8 billion a year to the Australian economy from failing to use the skills and experience of older Australians.[9]

Why does this waste continue?

An important part of the answer is this: the facts about ageing are widely ignored.

Employers, recruiters, the media and the community generally, we all need to focus on the demographic facts.

What are they?

Demographers and actuaries tell us most of us will live well past the life expectancy of previous generations. Most of us here today may live to 90 and beyond.

A report from the Australian Institute of Actuaries quoted in the Australian Financial Review last year claimed:

There are plausible scenarios where people who are currently aged 65 and healthy will be expected to live past 100.The life expectancy for younger generations could exceed 120 years.[10]

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us that not only will we live longer; we will also be living with better health.

The latest brain research is also instructive.

According to Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, “the really good news for anyone nudging retirement age is that, despite all the gloom about dementia, the brains of many modern 65 to 70 year olds are in pretty good shape compared to those of previous generations – and often too young to be retired.

Today’s physically active 70-year-olds who don’t smoke have scans showing brains that look 10 to 15 years younger than those of their parents’ generation at the same age – more of whom were smokers”.[11]

The science of gerontology contributes important perspectives to this issue.

Chronological age is not destiny. Gerontologists have established that biological ageing and social ageing are individual to each human being.

It is perfectly normal for some 80 year olds to be working, driving and active in their community, while others may be restricted in movement and require high levels of care.

Employers and policy makers need to take account of the fact that it is difference that characterises ageing – not sameness.

Benefits to the economy

In 2012 I commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to measure the impacts to the national economy if we could increase the employment participation rates of people aged over 55.[12] The findings are astounding.

With just a three percent increase in participation by over 55s, we should see an extra $33billion annual boost to the national economy.

With a five percent increase, we would see a $48 billion national economy impact. This $48 billion would be in addition to the $55 billion currently anticipated with the current quite slow trend of increasing participation.[13]

To place numbers on these dollar figures, five percent increase would mean about an extra three quarters of a million over 55’s in paid work – instead of living on benefits.

The imperative in terms of our national economy could hardly be stronger.

How do we perform on this measure internationally?                                                                  

OECD data ranks Australia 9th out of the 34 OECD countries in the employment of workers aged 55-64. Our rate of employment of 55 to 64 year olds is just over 61 percent.[14]

We sit behind Iceland with employment rates at 79.5 percent and New Zealand at 73.7 percent. Also ahead of Australia are Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Korea and Israel.[15]

There is nothing inevitable about this ranking.

There is no good reason why Australia can’t be the world leader in its participation rates for older workers. After all we have the developed world’s fastest growing economy; we have among the highest high health standards and almost the greatest longevity in the world. We have an economy which if it is to continue to grow needs a stronger supply of skilled workers.

What should happen?

To realise this potential massive benefit to our economy and, even more importantly, to enable our older citizens to live happily and in good health while they earn enough for a secure retirement, we need to tackle unjustified age discrimination wherever it manifests itself in our society.

In particular looking at the workforce, my approach is to hold purposeful discussions with employers, recruiters, and human resource professionals to ensure that they recognise the facts about older workers and incorporate their potential contributions into their business plans.

This is happening, I am happy to say, though it needs to happen a lot more. Those employers strategic and smart enough to value what mature workers can contribute are starting to serve as inspirational examples to their competitors.

Much of my comment about employer attitudes to this point implies that current jobs should be available to older workers on the same basis as others, namely the capacity to do the job.

But there are also the new growth areas, especially relevant here. Rapidly growing labour demands are occurring in all community and many other service areas.

Aged care in particular will need more than half a million additional workers over the next few years.

Where will they come from?

At workforce policy level, new resources are being directed to raising the skills level of aged care workers, and improving pay and conditions. Under such improved circumstances, aged care work could provide satisfying second or third career opportunities for older people who have lost their jobs because of structural change wiping out traditional areas of employment.

Other areas like financial services, community development and education at all levels can provide many more jobs, and they are jobs that healthy, capable persons should be able to aspire to at any age.

So, that is our challenge, to create, and quickly, a world where age of itself does not prevent engagement, productivity and social value, in short, a future without age.

[4] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13.

[5] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13.

[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Long-term unemployment, 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sept 2011.

[9] National Seniors Australia Productive Ageing Centre, Still Putting In: Measuring the Economic and Social Contributions of Older Australians, 2009, p 11.

[13] Deloitte Access Economics, Increasing participation among older workers: The grey army advances, 2012.

[15] OECD, How do OECD labour markets perform?  Employment to population ratios, Older workers as a percentage of population aged 55-64‌, 2010.