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‘Mature Age Worker – you’ll be one sooner than you think!’ (2009)

Discrimination Age Discrimination

‘Mature Age Worker – you’ll be one sooner than you think!’

Speech by Elizabeth Broderick

Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Australian Human Rights Commission

 Australian Institute of Family Studies
Melbourne
10.00am Thursday 6 August 2009


Thank you very much for the invitation to speak today on the topic of “Mature Age Worker – you’ll be one sooner than you think”.  A bit of a scary title really!  But what I’ve learnt over the last 2 years is that age discrimination is the great leveller.  We’re all likely to experience it at some stage of our working lives!  Now that’s something to look forward to!

Over the last two years, in my role as Commissioner, I have had the great honour of meeting many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians. Many of these individuals have been tireless advocates for their communities and a great inspiration to me.

So, today, I am proud to be speaking on the traditional country of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and I pay my respects to their elders.

I would also like to pay my respect to all elders, of different ethnicities - women and men, who for many decades have fought for equality.

When I first started in the position of Commissioner for Age Discrimination, one of my early engagements was to attend a legal briefing about the age discrimination complaints we receive.

The briefing proceeded reasonably uneventfully, until it came to the part where the presenter started to talk about who a mature age worker was. She said nonchalantly “mature aged workers are workers 45 years and older”, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world! Meanwhile, I was quietly going into shock, thinking to myself, “Hang on - This can’t be! That’s me! I’m 47 years old! – I’m a mature age worker!”

Then I realized, - it’s not just me. It’s Elle McPherson, Madonna, Julia Gillard, Barack Obama and a whole lot of other people you may not think of as ‘older’.

And that shocking fact leads me to why I am here today.

I think most of us have heard by now that Australia has an ageing population. But we are probably not giving enough thought to the logical consequence of this – namely, that we are also an ageing workforce.

And as I so confrontingly found out, we are probably even less aware that, at least for statistical purposes - the official age of a mature-age worker is a mere 45 years of age.

Not that ‘45’ is the magic number when it comes to being a mature age worker. In the United States the official age of an older worker starts at 40!

This may be a startling realization to many. But what is also startling is how the treatment of ‘age’ reinforces some of the most insidious forms of discrimination, stereotyping and generalisation in our society.

The issue of age discrimination is not someone else’s issue – age happens to all of us. Yet age discrimination goes largely unnoticed within our community, and worse still, is largely accepted as normal.

We need to be aware of it. We need to be able to recognize it. And after I have finished speaking today, I hope we all agree that we need to do something about it!  But more on that later.

Let me now set the scene for you.

When we talk about mature age workers, it is important to remember from the outset that this group is not a homogenous group. Being ‘mature age’ crosses cultural background, class, faith, gender, sexuality and disability.

But once people reach the point of being seen as a ‘mature-age worker’, age discrimination will likely become one of the most unaddressed barriers to workforce participation that they will face.

Put bluntly, at some stage from around the age of 45 onwards, we all run the risk of encountering age discrimination in relation to employment.

Given that by 2020, it is expected that 4 out of 10 people in our labour force will be 45 and over, this poses a very real problem.

With the landmark policy change of the staged increase in the age pension age to 67, our government is sending a strong signal that the expectation is now that workers will work for longer. But can they? 16% of unemployed people over 45 report their main difficulty in finding work lies in being considered ‘too old’ by employers.

Our own consultations with peak age-based community groups reveal that age discrimination features prominently among the barriers to mature age workers who are trying to access paid employment.

Eradication of age discrimination in the workplace is therefore crucial.

Before I proceed I want to make it clear that I am in no way today talking about forcing people to work longer. I am talking about enabling those people who need or wish to work longer, to do so without discriminatory barriers.

The main point I will make today is that discrimination against people categorised as ‘mature-age workers’ is pervasive, it’s systemic, it’s invisible and accepted.

Given that our population is aging - if we are to move forward as a successful and inclusive society, we must make visible and we must challenge those age related assumptions and stereotypes that we unconsciously hold.  We must do this whenever and wherever we find them.  And that requires all of us to get on board.

So how do we do this?

It won’t be easy because we have an initial challenge.  How can you fix something that you can’t even see! That is the point.

Today I will endeavour to uncover three facets of age discrimination that mature age workers live with every day:

  1. The huge hidden problem of ageism in our society;
  2. Age discrimination in employment; and
  3. The psychological and social impacts of age discrimination in employment.

I find that the best way to think about this is to think of ageism as the broader social context.  Age discrimination and age based stereotypes are forms of ageism.  And today I’ll be principally focussing on how this plays out in the workplace. 

The hidden problem of ageism

Before we can consider the workplace or age discrimination, we must look at our broader culture and consider the hidden role played by ageism.  After all, workplaces are just a microcosm of the views held by Australian society more broadly.

This was reinforced by a person I met with recently. He said that workplaces simply reflected the wider social context, the obsession with appearance, and the high value placed on being vital and young.

But what do I mean by ageism? Ageism has been defined as ‘a process of the systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people’ simply because of their age.

This kind of systematic stereotyping pervades most, if not all aspects of public life. A number of academics see ageism as underpinned by the ‘ideal of youth’ where ‘forever youthful’ is actively promoted within modern societies like Australia. Others see ageism as reflecting deeply-held, often irrational, fears about our own experience of ageing.

Some people argue that the historical shift from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial society has ushered in a downgrading of ageing – particularly in workplaces - through the adoption of a work intensification model which values efficiency and compliance while devaluing experience. 

Some people tell me that old age has now become equated with ‘dependency and near death.’ Instead of embracing diversity, which can work against these entrenched stereotypes, the overall message is of certain ‘decline’.

Confronting ageism can sometimes be, well, confronting. As one academic pointed out ‘many people do not believe they are being ageist… [They]…see their stereotyping as ‘the truth’, the ‘reality’’. But confront it we must.

One of the most prevalent manifestations of ageism is age-based stereotyping. Age-based stereotyping applies assumed age-based group characteristics to a person regardless of their actual individual characteristics. An example of this simplistic language of stereotyping can be seen in the widespread use of ‘generational labels’ so heavily used in media, marketing, social commentary and in popular culture - Gen Y, Generation X, Baby Boomers and Veterans.  These labels have been introduced into our everyday language and can be bandied around without any thought to the potential consequences of reinforcing age based stereotypes.

While these labels may allow for reflection on interesting socio-political or technological similarities and differences between age groups it is wrong to start attributing wholesale personality traits to entire groups of diverse people simply on the basis of their age. At their very worst, such stereotypes encourage divisive intergenerational competition – observations like, older people are seen to have had a ‘good run’ and are now ‘denying opportunities’.

The prevalence of these age-based stereotypes in Australian culture shows how entrenched our ageism is, and how important it is that we challenge it. For example, is it fair that a person aged over 70 is not entitled to travel insurance?

And this imperative to challenge these attitudes is no more apparent than when we come to look at the Australian workforce.

Manifestation in employment

So, I’d now like to look at how age discrimination – as a part of ageism - plays out in practice.

Let’s start by looking at age discrimination in employment. In doing this we have to begin right back at the point when a person first applies for a job – recruitment.

It is in recruitment that the first battle on age discrimination must be fought. Unlawful age discrimination in recruitment and selection has been described as systemic and as the point in the employment cycle where managers most extensively apply age as a discriminator.

We’ve all seen the job advertisement that reads, ‘young and dynamic person wanted’. Age discrimination affects everything from job advertisements to short-listing practices to age disclosures in job applications and interview questions.  Questions such as ‘when did you leave high school?’ or ‘how old are your children?’ may not be as innocuous as you might think.

In the workplace, crude age generalisations can be cheaper and more convenient than merit-based individual testing of job competence. We’ve all heard of ‘don’t send me CV’s of anyone over 40’.

These discriminatory recruitment practices lead to one of the most entrenched barriers that mature age workers can face - their inability to re-enter the workforce as either blue or white-collar workers because of assumptions made about ‘people of that age’.

As one woman writing to me said:
I live in an area where ageism is rampant and I am currently studying a Master of Human Resource Management…which is obviously up-to-date in terms of job skills, and it does not make one scrap of difference in the job market.  I have 3 other degrees as well, and these too, fit in contemporary markets.  I’m 54 and no-one wants me.  It is very disillusioning. The only job I have is [as a] casual…and that’s all I can get.
When you consider that as of June 2009, 40.3% of long-term job-seekers on the NewStart allowance are over the age of 40 years, you can see that this is a sobering situation.

Some employers recruit based on a rigid ‘absolute skills fit’ model while for others, it doesn’t seem to matter how up to date your skills are - they still don’t want you. People older than 45 can often be pre-judged and dismissed for a number of reasons such as: not ‘fitting into the environment’ or being ‘too qualified’. This can be exacerbated by some employers’ tendency to recruit within their own age group or a preference for younger workers to keep power or authority lines clear.

Let’s move to the daily experience of employment itself.

Even where a mature age worker is in a job, forms of age discrimination persist. They can be seen as less efficient, less trainable and less valuable than people who are younger than them. Mature age workers can be denied access to promotion and training because they are seen as offering ‘limited returns’.

Age discrimination can also result in mature age workers being trapped in more precarious or vulnerable forms of employment, like unpaid or contract-based arrangements. This can also raise issues of underemployment.

One mature age worker talked about taking a teaching contract on the basis that a permanent position was likely to follow. She waited until the school would confirm whether the position was available (thereby missing out on the recruitment round for other places). When the position was available, she was told they were going to give it to a graduate. She asked if that was for budgetary reasons, and the Principal said no, they just had too many older teachers in the school.

Redundancy and retirement practices can also be used to demote or force mature age workers from the workplace.

For example, a 64 year old employee who worked for 14 years as a permanent full-time sales team manager recounted how a consultant was engaged to assess the business and recommend changes. She was subsequently advised that her position would no longer exist. Shortly after she left, a new person was employed to perform exactly the same role and duties. The new person was in their early thirties.

Age-based bullying and harassment from employers and co-workers is another disturbing issue. Mature age workers can face hints, comments and jokes about retiring, menopause and leaving due to ‘getting too old’. One Victorian report has noted how bullying and harassment took the form of ‘ignoring and isolating’ the worker and making life difficult for them by, for example, not giving them enough time to learn new skills.

Some mature age workers believe they should make way for younger workers as a kind of ‘public service’ or they start to regard themselves as ‘too old to learn’.

Not only does this represent a potentially serious leakage of skills and talent, but if mature age people start to believe and internalise these unlawful ageist stereotypes, we have a clear indicator of an extremely entrenched, pervasive and systemic form of discrimination.  Just in productivity terms this is a serious problem, but it also strikes at the core of our human right to dignity and respect.

Though obviously there are individual employers that are not swayed by irrelevant age-based considerations, my consultations revealed that age discrimination is still considered to be the most wide-spread barrier facing mature age participation in the workforce today.

Psychological and social impacts

By now, you must be wondering about the impacts of this discrimination. And this is my last point.

I put it to you that we should not be made to feel we’ve reached the scrap heap of working life once we reach 45. Under international law, people have the right to work. 

At 45 years of age, we have at least 10 to 25 ‘working’ years left. Yet in Australia, we have lower workforce participation rates for mature age workers compared to other key OECD countries. And this is all happening in an environment where, astonishingly, certain industries are screaming skills shortages.

As I alluded to earlier, up-to-date training alone can not address systemic age discrimination which can lead to mature age workers de-skilling by simply ‘taking what they can get’. As I said earlier, over 40 year olds on NewStart represent 40.3% of long-term job-seekers . Unemployed and underemployed mature age workers represent an economic and productivity cost that Australia can ill-afford.

We should not underestimate the psychological impact of systemic ageism on individuals living in a society that is promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy among over 45s that they are on the ‘way out’. On the one hand we are being told that we should be working to at least 67 years of age, yet on the other hand we are being told ‘see ya’ at age 45. Faced with barriers that are often invisible and accepted there would be an obvious tendency to tell yourself, ‘I’m a failure – it must be me’.

Research has shown that the internalisation of negative age-based stereotypes by mature age workers undermines their attitudes towards future job seeking prospects and trainability. In this situation re-entry into the workforce is then, not just seen as impossible, but worse still, it is accepted as impossible. This process of self-selecting out of the workforce can act as a vicious accelerator of both entrenched long-term unemployment and poverty.

And what of the social impact?

Under international law, people have the right to social security and to an adequate standard of living. Yet, before the federal government’s increases to the Age Pension, more than one in four senior Australians were living in poverty.  At this time we had the fourth highest old-age poverty rate among OECD countries - more than double the OECD average.

Adequate social security is a critical part of the picture. But without the ability to access employment, we risk effectively condemning a significant number of older Australians to a life of near poverty. It is not ‘choice’ if you need or want to work, but cannot and are forced on to a pension.

One man in his 50’s spoke of this terrible predicament. In 8 years, he applied for over 500 jobs and received only 4 interviews. At one interview he was told he was over-qualified and would be totally fed up with what they were offering in a week to 10 days. Finally, due to the lack of job prospects and his experiences over the last 8 years, he registered for the age pension soon after he turned 65.

Make no mistake, the situation described above is not exceptional and can cross both the white and blue collar industries. Ask yourself, how do you feel after one job application rejection? Now imagine 500. It is a relentless and brutal situation and crushes a person’s sense of self-esteem. Having been forced out of paid work, the same man I just spoke of admitted to feelings of depression and social isolation.

A number of people I consulted with pointed out the mental health impact that can result from workplace marginalisation and detachment. This included connections between inactivity, cognitive decline, depression and social isolation, linked to the loss of sense of self and the perceived status people gain from being in paid work.

Looking back at the recruitment process, where a positive attitude is very important, depression among mature age job seekers can only exacerbate a person’s vulnerability.

And when it comes to our retirement, those images we are fed of two healthy, wealthy older people all dressed in white, smiling, running carefree down a beach with their golden retriever into a dreamy future – is for many mature age workers just that, a dream. Images like these disguise the often harsh reality many mature age workers face - we need to face the facts.

Summary

In summary then, ageism is alive and well, and can lead to discrimination against older workers with serious long term affects. We must take action.  Otherwise these attitudes risk creating a group of people – over 45s – who:

  1. are un recruitable
  2. are unemployable
  3. are discriminated against and worse still, believe that they should be.

We will allow a group of people within our society to be treated as if they are of less value and worth, and diminish their human dignity.

Ageing doesn’t happen to someone else – it happens to all of us - and it happens across our life cycle, not just at the end or after we turn 45. In fact, it is probably more accurate to describe us all as ‘ageing workers’ from the time we first enter the workforce with our part time job at high school.

We must work toward handing control back to the worker. Control about how we are perceived. This means being assessed on the basis of merit and NOT being pre-judged on the basis of stereotypes that are beyond a person’s control.

In terms of developing thoughtful and effective policies to identify and eradicate barriers to mature age workforce participation, we are well and truly behind the curve.

So what needs to happen? I have a number of proposals here – and I don’t profess that they are particularly original, but it is absolutely critical that we talk about them and commit to them.

Firstly, research. We cannot develop effective policy frameworks and potential solutions without working from a comprehensive evidence base – there are no short-cuts here. Our consultations revealed a distinct lack of research in Australia into the forms and effects of age discrimination across the work-life cycle. Apart from investigating the level of control, or lack thereof, that workers have throughout the employment process once they reach 45, it is absolutely critical that we thoroughly interrogate the nature and extent of age discrimination and its link with unemployment or underemployment and the reality of choice in relation to retirement, self-employment and quality flexible work. We need to understand and evaluate the impacts of our existing regulatory system before we can seek to improve it.

Secondly, communication. We need to make the very real problems of systemic, accepted and largely invisible ageism, ‘visible’ to the entire Australian community. Without visibility and acknowledgement, we will never be able to change attitudes and behaviour. While we can acknowledge that there are some policy contexts where age-based considerations may be relevant, such as driving, alcohol consumption, voting age etc, these considerations rarely directly translate to the employment context.  When I think about the differences between our responses to sex discrimination and age discrimination - in the gender area we have a strong social movement, activism and significant advocacy.  In the age discrimination area while we have some great NGOs they are relatively very small in number, and funding and other constraints necessarily limit the extent of activism and advocacy.  I am optimistic that this situation will  change and it must as the population ages and more voters reach 45yrs and over.  A strong social movement will challenge the broader ageism that exists in our society today.

To facilitate this process we need a well-funded education campaign that challenges negative stereotypes about ageing and engagement in paid work. The strategy must be an integrated one that targets employers, employer associations, unions and the community in order to weed out systemic forms of age-based discrimination. It would need to address the often complex range of employer approaches to mature age workers. It would also need to investigate underlying issues of competitive pressures, technical change and shifts in the economy. As part of an integrated strategy, other key stakeholders such as training organisations and recruitment agencies would also need to be targeted.

Thirdly and finally, I call for legal reform. The federal and state governments must undertake a cross-departmental audit of laws and policies to identify and address the existence of any barriers or disincentives to mature age workforce participation that can result in discriminatory outcomes.

An example of this is the Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into Older Persons and the Law. It recommended that federal and state governments review the application of workers compensation legislation to ensure that older workers are not disadvantaged. We are awaiting the government’s response to this inquiry.

To this end, the Australian Human Rights Commission has made submissions to this inquiry about the adequacy of the Age Discrimination Act, which we administer. Of the four federal anti-discrimination Acts, the Age Discrimination Act is widely considered to offer the weakest protection. The Government has made some initial amendments to the Act but the Act still contains some of the broadest exemptions to its provisions. Further, it does not create a dedicated Commissioner to promote the Age Discrimination Act in the manner that the positions of Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Race Discrimination Commissioner do within their respective Acts.  And tellingly, in the 5 years since it has been in operation, there has never been a successful age discrimination claim in the Federal jurisdiction.

Most recently, the Commission has made a submission to the National Human Rights Consultation where it highlighted our reduced funding base which impacts our work in this area.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me say again, age discrimination does not happen by accident.
 
We must commit to communication and education initiatives and regulatory review and reform if we are to work toward a discrimination-free society that values people as they age and upholds their human rights. We need a very serious commitment to this from both government and industry if we are to make any progress on this front. But we also need to build a social movement aimed at dismantling ageism – so that it is no longer considered acceptable to discriminate unlawfully on the basis of age. Where everyone regardless of age is entitled to an equal chance.

I want to be part of an inclusive community where everyone gets to stand up and be proud of what age they are – part of a community where 45 becomes what it should be – just another birthday.    

Thanks very much.

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