Ageism is an ongoing challenge for people in Australia, particularly in the workplace. Despite research showing that the percentage of Australians that are aged 65 and over in the labour force more than doubled between 2000 and 2015, and now more than 20 per cent people over the age of 70 are still working, for many of these senior citizen employees the perception is that they are subject to discrimination.
A study of senior citizens by Australian Seniors shows that nine in ten of those over the age of 50 believe that ageism is prevalent in the workplace. Almost a quarter believe that they have been overlooked for a job based on their age, and over 40 per cent feel patronised at work based on their age.
These numbers are closely parallel with a report from the Australian Human Rights Commission that found that 90 per cent of Australians agree ageism exists in Australia in a broad sense, and 83 per cent agree that it is a big problem.
Furthermore, ageism disproportionately affects women, according to research done by the University of Melbourne – it hits women “earlier and harder.” As Emma Dawson, Executive Director of the think tank, Per Capita, noted in a speech, almost 50 per cent of women aged over 45 are living on Newstart.
Tackling issues of ageism is now an urgent women’s issue. With ageism now considered to be the most common form of workplace discrimination, tackling the issue is more pertinent now than ever, with the big question being just what can be done.
Ageism has an economic cost
Before we look at the soft benefits of tackling ageism, it’s important to first recognise that there is an economic cost that comes from ageism.
With work more flexible than ever, there is greater opportunity for senior citizens – who may no longer have it in them to work full time or heavy physical labour, but still want to participate in the workforce – to find roles that suit them. This should be encouraged, since older workers:
1) Are more experienced, and can assist with skills transfers to younger generations via mentorship and training.
2) Are more likely to stay in a role for longer. Younger generations are “job hopping” at a startling rate, with one in four planning to move within the year. Millennials and Gen-Z employees have career development on the mind, and are deeply cognizant that the nature of work is changing rapidly, so having a broad range of skills and job capabilities is important to them. Senior workers, meanwhile, appreciate stability, and are intensely aware of how much more difficult it is for them to find new roles, so are more likely to be content to remain at their current employer.
3) Senior citizens tend to have acquired experience that gives them emotional intelligence and makes them a calming presence as a leader. There are always exceptions to the rule both ways, but the maturity that comes with experience counts in everything from dealing with a crisis to managing competing interests.
4) Wage subsidies and other government programs. Practically, there are benefits to hiring older employees, with the government often offering incentives and support to make hiring a senior citizen cheaper for the business.
5) It broadens the skill set of the enterprise. While it is true that younger generations tend to be more comfortable with technology innovation and quick to adopt new ideas, the older generations tend to thrive in situations where there is person-to-person contact and “traditional” ways of doing business. Without these skills, potential opportunities within the enterprise are lost.
Combatting ageism in the workplace
One of the big issues in combatting ageism is that it’s a form of discrimination that tends to go unnoticed and unaddressed. Outright discrimination – such as refusing to hire someone on the basis of their age – is illegal (though prosecuted far too infrequently, given how often senior citizens do feel like they miss out on work on the basis of their age). However, where language and behaviours that are considered discriminatory to people with disabilities, or hostile to gender, ethnicity or religion, are often explicitly against company policy, there are fewer checks on ageist language or behaviours at work.
Organisations also need to be more flexible in how they allow senior citizens to work. Allowing remote working and being more flexible with hours can make a job that would have otherwise been impossible manageable. Additionally, allowing for more flexible ways of work would help to properly engage senior employees – making part-time work more accessible, for example.
Finally, it’s important to make sure that senior employees are not overlooked for career development opportunities. This can be met with some resistance and even hostility within the workplace, as younger generations look at every opportunity against a long-term gain, but the ability to take leadership over projects and the opportunity for having results recognised with the promotion are critical to engagement within the workforce, and a workplace where the senior employees feel disengaged is one of the clearest signs of a toxic, discriminatory workplace.
With unemployment at all-time lows and skill shortages in a host of fields rife across the nation, Australian businesses cannot afford to be seen as a bad place for seniors to work. Ageism isn’t just the sign of a poorly-managed and toxic worksite. It’s going to be increasingly an indication of a struggling business.