People

Age is no barrier: Why Australian businesses need to give older workers a fair go

Karen Gately /

millennial

Corporate Dojo founder Karen Gately. Source: supplied.

The fact our population is ageing, and the implications this has for our economy, has been well understood for a number of decades. Transformational changes for example to superannuation, in readiness for a larger cohort of Australians in retirement, began in 1991 with the introduction of Superannuation Guarantee. However, comparatively little has been done to prepare Australian businesses for the talent shortage that inevitably comes with fewer people working.  

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s recent call for senior Australians to stay in the workforce in order to boost the economy is far easier said than done. The reality is ageism — age related discrimination in employment practices — continues to be a major problem in this country. If we are to tap into the talent and energy of workers at later stages of their careers and lives, we need a dramatic shift in mindsets and decision-making from many HR and business leaders.  

The harsh reality

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2015 National prevalence survey of age discrimination in the workplace found 27% of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination. A third of those gave up looking for work all together. Anecdotally, I can attest to how common it is for people over 50 to struggle to be invited for an interview, let alone secure a new job.  

The harsh reality is once a mature worker finds themselves unemployed, the chances of them finding a new job is greatly reduced when compared with younger people. According to the Human Rights Commission, as at May 2018, the average duration of unemployment of people 55 or older was 74 weeks, compared with 54 weeks for people aged 25-54 years.

In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission joined forces with the Australian HR Institute and surveyed over 900 HR practitioners about their organisations’ attitudes toward hiring people at various stages of their careers. The study found “up to 30 per cent of Australian employers are still reluctant to hire workers over a certain age, and for more than two thirds of this group, that age was over 50.”

Giving employees a fair go

Regardless of how eager older Australians are to keep working, or return to employment, organisations need to be willing to give them a fair go. Overcoming this challenge will require educating people about unconscious bias and challenging their unfounded assumptions about mature age workers.  

For example, a commonly held false belief is that as we age, we naturally want to slow down and achieve less. In my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth for many people. While of course some people do aspire to do as little as possible as soon as possible, many don’t. Far more common are people who want to continue to live a life with meaning. Many of us want to continue to contribute in some way, and ultimately add value, well beyond retirement.  

Just as often people assume that as we age we lose cognitive capacity and the ability to change. Reflect for just a moment on the number of people you know who are still more than capable of learning and taking on new challenges despite being over 50 years of age. It’s ludicrous the extent to which some employers assume age is an insurmountable barrier to success.  

If you overlay all of the commonly held assumptions about people in various age groups it’s clear there are few people indeed who are a so called ‘sure bet’ when it comes to hiring decisions.  Young people are often seen as immature and requiring too much training. Millennials are accused of being impatient and disloyal. Concerns are often held about hiring people who might become parents. That leaves the group of workers who have a few good years to dedicate to work — unless of course they have teenage children who cause them angst. And then we hit 50 and its all over in the eyes of some employers!

Organisations that are serious about tapping into the vast pool of talent, wisdom and energy residing in our elders need to open the minds of decision makers to new beliefs about the potential this group offers. Just as critical is the willingness of organisations to shift limiting beliefs about how people need to work in order to make a valuable contribution. Much like for working parents and millennials who want flexibility, being willing to offer part-time or flexible work practices is essential to attracting and retaining people later in their careers.  

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Karen Gately

Karen is the founder of Corporate Dojo and the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people.