There is no doubt that older workers make a massive contribution to Australia’s economy. An earlier report released by the National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre, Still Putting In, showed that older workers contributed $59.6 billion a year to our economy. Equally, the country loses an astounding $10.8 billion a year by not making use of the skills and experience of older Australians who want to work1. Which prompts the question – why are we overlooking these older workers?The authors conclude by highlighting three policy implications -
This report explores that question, and the results are not pretty. It finds that age discrimination is widespread - in recruitment, in promotion, and during times of retrenchment. It is evident in workplace harassment and pressure to retire, and in the unspoken but powerful assumption that the best workers are young workers.
Age discrimination, although widespread, is "the elephant in the room" – palpable but unmentionable. Australia loses incalculable talent and energy through age discrimination. Paradoxically, while the federal government is encouraging people to stay in the workforce well past the once-mandatory retirement ages of 60 or 65, many older workers find themselves rejected. There is a painful gap between laws against age discrimination, and the practice of age discrimination.
The thrust of this report is that awareness of age discrimination law leads often to nimble side-stepping – compliance with the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Recruitment advertisements no longer mention age but resort to euphemisms. Where complaints of age discrimination have been made, in many cases complainants received only an apology. Very few people refused a job were subsequently offered that job, and compensatory payments were usually low.
The effect of discrimination on older workers is often devastating. The case studies and personal accounts reveal the harrowing experience of older workers who have felt the weight of age discrimination and rejection. The policy implications emphasise that age discrimination cannot be ignored, even if it has become less overt, and more efforts are needed to overcome it.
Policy implication 1: Policy makers should examine the issue of ‘disguised discrimination’ and strengthen the relevant anti-discrimination legislation to reduce the likelihood of covert discrimination. Broader community education and awareness about the value of older workers is needed.
Australia is a prosperous country with a long tradition of a fair go and a broad consensus about fair treatment at work. Social inclusion policies emphasise participation for all. As the case studies in this report show, age discrimination has severe consequences for families and individuals. Despite the abolition of mandatory retirement ages, ideas about a social norm of the right age to retire lead to pressure on many older workers.
Australians are leading longer, healthier lives and are being urged by economists and politicians to work longer. Many are keen to do so, while others feel that after a lifetime of hard work they are entitled to an easier life.
The notion of an expected or “normal” age of retirement remains strong and leads to pressure on some older workers, especially when redundancies or restructures take place. In the report, a 2007 ABS survey of 3.9 million workers aged 45 and over is quoted, showing that most respondents hoped not to retire until they were at least 65. This cohort of Australians envisages an active lifestyle in their sixties, with 24% intending to retire at 70 or over. In time, this generation may overcome the community attitudes that have put some of our informants under pressure to leave the workforce around the age of 60.
Policy implication 2: Policies must allow individuals to make their own work or retirement choices in the light of their own health, aspirations, financial status and family situations.
It is evident from this study that age discrimination is alive and well in this country, and that it has devastating impacts on its victims. Legislation and administrative remedies are both necessary, but they alleviate only some of the problems. While Australia’s anti-discrimination laws are to be applauded, the number of conciliated cases reported by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board remains modest. To many people, the complaint process with its emphasis on written documents, legal representation, and referral to a higher body where conciliation fails, appears time-consuming, and potentially costly in terms of prolonged effort, emotional distress, legal fees and loss of reputation.
Policy implication 3: There is a need for greater awareness by employees of their rights to complain about age discrimination, and perhaps more information or advice for unions, professional bodies and the like to feel more confident in supporting such complaints by their members.
A campaign launched by the Fair Work Ombudsman in November 2010 is a good start in this direction. New educative material has been prepared to increase awareness among the more than three million working Australians aged over 45 that unlawful discrimination can include refusing to employ, promote or train someone because they are considered too old, or repeatedly offering training and promotion opportunities and overtime and penalty shifts to young staff first. The Fair Work Ombudsman Executive Director Michael Campbell said that every employee, regardless of how old they are, has the right to work without fear of discrimination
It is to be hoped that this campaign, together with initiatives that encourage the training and retention of older workers, will ensure greater progress in the elimination of age discrimination and the promotion of fairness at work. Only then will the elephant in the room cease to be a threat.