Monday 7 May 2012


The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Removing the grey areas of age discrimination

Author: Ms Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

Published in The Drum Monday, 7 May 2012

The issue of dumping older workers out of their jobs years before they are ready to retire is getting a lot more attention these days.

Individuals are increasingly fearful of this kind of age discrimination which can condemn them to long-term, often permanent, unemployment when they are in their 50’s, or even younger.

My role as Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission was created specifically to tackle this sort of discrimination, and to work to dismantle the stereotyping and prejudice that gives rise to it.

Governments are all too aware of the extra expenditure on benefits, health care and the age pension that grows and massively mounts up when people who are willing to work are denied the opportunity.

At the same time, forward-thinking businesses are concerned that losing the accumulated experience and skills of these employees, with decades of good work behind them, only exacerbates the skills crisis and wastes their investment in human capital.

And while health experts continue to produce evidence that being employed is a great protector of health, at any age, Community organisations struggle to deal with the human tragedy of depression and poverty that often results from a person being forced into joblessness because of age prejudice.

The unfairness and irrationality of age discrimination is clear and widely recognised.

I get a lot of positive responses from the community when I ask people to consider how wrong it is that the age pension – which was introduced in 1909 for people aged 65 and over - has virtually the same age rules in 2012 as it did over 100 years ago. To put this in perspective - that was at a time when only 4% of the population lived long enough to claim it!

Now we are living into our 80’s and 90’s. Compared with our grandparents, we have almost another lifetime to live.

If we leave work in our 50’s or 60’s, we could face another thirty of forty years of living. How will we support ourselves? What will we do to give our lives purpose - to get that feeling of being valued that comes from doing a job well?

Volunteering is, of course, hugely valuable and many organisations depend on it. But volunteering works best for those individuals who have chosen to retire and already have financial security. It is not the best answer for people forced into premature retirement. What they want is paid work, full or part-time.

Despite the growing awareness of the economic folly and human cruelty of age discrimination, a lot of left-over policy settings continue to undermine the positive steps governments are taking to improve opportunities for mature-age employment.

This week, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) released an issues paper entitled ‘Grey Areas: Age Barriers to Work in Commonwealth Laws’, for its Inquiry into legal barriers to mature-age participation in the workforce and other productive work.

It is inviting all organisations and individuals with an interest in reforming laws that are age discriminatory to make a submission.

I have been appointed as a part time Commissioner to the ALRC to assist in this work, led by President of the ALRC, Professor Rosalind Croucher. And I firmly believe it offers us an excellent opportunity to focus on these obstructive policies and laws, and to provide the basis for further effective reform.

The issues paper covers obvious areas for review - employment, age pension, income tax, superannuation, insurance, workers compensation, social security, family assistance, child support, migration. It also sets out no fewer than 55 questions which will surely prompt interested replies. No doubt, the first round of consultations will expose more areas that obstruct the older person from continuing in paid work.

I expect we will get a flood of comments, complaints and suggestions for change. And I hope we do, because the more stories we get from the community, the stronger the case for reform. I am hopeful that, with community input, we can move onto big, constructive changes that redefine the way we see and treat older people, and include them fully in our economy as well as our society.

In the 9 months I have been Age Discrimination Commissioner, we have had a huge increase in complaints about age discrimination, mostly in relation to jobs. I truly believe this can change and we would all benefit from this change.

But we know there are still plenty of obstacles created by the way some Commonwealth policies operate. So this inquiry presents our community with a big opportunity to guide reform and help create a world in which people are treated fairly, on their merits, regardless of age.

It is not 1909. In 2012, ”Old” should be a concept more accurately applied to the 95 year old than the 65 year old … or, heaven forbid, the 45 year old!


You can obtain more information, download the Issues Paper and make submissions (in writing, by fax or by email) at from the ALRC website, or contact the ALRC to order hard copies (02-8238 6333).