Can We Stop Ageist Prejudice?

Companies and governments need to do more than giving lip service.

Older workers are finding themselves in an absurd situation.

Life expectancy is increasing, and governments are expecting them to work until they are older. Many older workers need to work longer anyway because they don’t have sufficient retirement savings, and many industries have a talent shortage.

Despite this, older workers are finding it difficult to find this elusive thing called meaningful work, and are increasingly calling out what they see as ageist prejudice in the jobs market.

Is it simply because they are not digital natives and are considered beyond retraining that this is happening? Or is there an economic and social disconnect which – while glaringly obvious – governments and the industry are powerless to fix?

Rife Discrimination

In Australia, the Government policy is all about getting people to work longer so they won’t be a burden on the welfare system. This is clearly not working.

While Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently exhorted older Australians to keep working longer, and the retirement age – at which people are eligible for the aged pension – is to be moved from 65 to 67 by 2023, older people are disproportionately represented in unemployment statistics.

Despite the Government rhetoric, only one employee of the 2,000 public servants employed in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s department is over 65.

The largest age group receiving the Government unemployment benefit of a meager AUD 275 per week – Newstart – are those over 55 or some 173,000 people. In comparison, there are 62,500 people aged between 21 and 24 on unemployment benefits.

Unsurprisingly, older people feel discriminated against.

They are also financially squeezed because of inadequate retirement savings. Australia's admired universal pensions savings scheme began in 1993 after many older workers were 15 years into their careers. So, many have meager retirement savings at a time that the Government is slashing welfare.

As a result, many older people are out there looking for work later in life, and this is reflected in record participation rates in the labor market.

Unwelcomed Workers

A recent report by researchers at the University of Sydney and Curtin University conducted a national benchmarking study of mature workers to understand how organizations might better manage and harness the skills they offer.

The report found that many older workers do not feel included in the workplace, and cite age-based opportunities for skills training, limited availability of flexible working conditions, and an underwhelming degree of knowledge transfer between workers of various ages.

The report found that workers in the 55-64 age bracket, as well as working men older than 65, perceive their workplace policies are less inclusive than younger workers.

Addressing the misconception that older workers are less adaptive, the report countered with the finding that 90% of mature employees aged over 65 years are actively seeking to develop new capabilities.

Still, however, the discrimination continues.  In 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey of age discrimination found that 27% of people over 50 reported experiencing age discrimination.

Once an older worker finds themselves unemployed, it takes then an average of 74 weeks to find another job, compared with 54% for people aged under 54.

The Boomer Resentment

Australian media regularly features the experiences of older people who struggle to find employment, despite long and distinguished work histories.

One woman, 63-year-old Trish Sara from Sydney, unsuccessfully applied for 200 jobs despite being a recent professional graduate, and with a work history in PR, retail and interior design.

It might be illegal, but the recruitment industry entrenches unspoken discrimination against older people.  At a recent event in Sydney, Frank Ribout, the chief executive officer at recruitment firm Randstad in Australia, New Zealand, South-East Asia, and India, said that many employers believe recruiting older workers means higher turnover and more sick leave.

While all this is happening, derision about the economic advantages dealt to "Baby Boomers" dominates the Australian media. In particular, the fact that this generation has enjoyed high levels of homeownership and the resulting capital gains is often cited by younger people as a cause for resentment.

That may be so, but the reality is that the Australian population is aging. Older people are living healthier for longer, and many of them want to – or need to – work.

A Societal Issue

Government rhetoric is on board with this, but the Government's actions are not. The private sector seems determined to ignore older people, many of whom survive by freelancing or are lucky enough to have their own small businesses.

This is just not an economic problem, it’s a major societal issue. At Stamford University in the U.S., the Center for Longevity is looking at redesigning the human lifespan so that it is fit for purpose.

It can only be hoped that some of this thinking jumps rapidly from the academic world and into that of Government policy and private sector attitudes.

If not, older workers will ironically be the lost generation of the first part of the 21st century.