Over the hill and far away? Not on your nellie

by 09 Feb 2012

A slew of recent research has identified that age discrimination is a real problem in Australian workplaces. The latest was the Financial Services Council that found over a third of workers aged 50 and over who were earning about the average wage reported having experienced age-related discrimination.

So why is age discrimination such a persistent problem? Clearly it is a real negative when it comes to workforce participation and productivity, especially as our population ages.

An interesting report just put out by the World Economic Forum in Davos found economies with a high proportion of healthy, older workers do better. The report says: “…with people living longer than ever before … society has an opportunity to reap a ‘longevity dividend’, in which older people continue to make substantial contributions for unprecedentedly long periods.” Moreover, it finds little difference between the productivity of older and younger employees.

Inaccurate stereotypes about older workers being inflexible or hard to train are just a few examples that need to be addressed in order to remove barriers to workforce participation.

In my experience, mature age workers often represent an experienced, hard-working and productive talent pool, with low absenteeism and strong loyalty and work ethic. Diversity Council Australia’s Grey Matters research clearly showed that mature age workers want to learn as well as continue active links to the workplace:


  • For those mature age people not currently in the workforce, one third of all respondents, and of those aged 60 years or under, a staggering 57%, would be prepared to return to work if they were offered the right job. For currently employed mature age workers, one third would relocate and more than half would consider doing further study for the right job.
  • Around 80% of mature-age people not currently employed said working for an organisation that was supportive of their learning and development needs and careers was important or very important in influencing their decision to remain in the workplace.
  • Some 97% of mature-age people indicated working for an organisation that was supportive of older workers was important or very important in influencing their decision to remain in the workplace.

Indeed, research by the National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre has shown there are nearly two million older Australians who are willing to work, could be encouraged to work, or are unemployed and looking for work, and that there is a significant economic cost for not utilising the skills and experience of older Australians.

So it makes sense for employers not to ignore these workers as a source of talent. But what do they need to do differently in order to make the most of this talent? 

Taking a good look at recruitment, retention and development processes to ensure age discrimination is not occurring, even at an unconscious level, is a good starting point. Offering flexible ways of working, opportunities for learning and development, and an organisational culture inclusive and supportive of older employees are all very important. But more than anything it’s about changing the way we think about older people.

As Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says, “Unless we change our employment practices and our basic thinking about suitable employees, we will create a class of older people who are very often willing and perfectly capable of working, but have been forced into becoming a burden on the public purse – ironically, when we are suffering an ever worsening nationwide skills shortage.”


About the author

Nareen Young is the CEO, Diversity Council Australia. For more information visit www.dca.org.au   



  • by Bernie Althofer 10/02/2012 9:47:07 AM

    Maybe there a lot of assumptions being made about older workers in that once they reach a certain age, they want to retire and 'do things' that are not work related. Giving people an option to retire at a certain age might appear appealing for some, and some may take advantage without really considering what they still have to offer. For some, the decision to retire might be facilitated when they feel they are not being recognised or acknowledged, and retirement might be seen as a way of saying "I'll show you". It also seems that making the transition to retirement is based on monetary decisions. In some cases, if organisations were to have specialists who could advise on career transitioning e.g. retirement, relocation within the organisation, or even convincing the person to stay on, there may be some benefits for all parties.
    People do build up tremendous knowledge over years of work and it is always a shame to see them take that knowledge and experience with them, and to see it all go to waste (in some cases).
    I believe that it is important to change fundamental attitudes towards age and to stop making assumptions that because a person has reached a certain age, they have nothing more to offer, or they are unwilling to continue participation in the workforce, even if the job involves less financial reward.