Could COVID help bring an end to ageism?

Never has HR had such a powerful opportunity to dramatically shift discriminatory mindsets, according to one commentator

Could COVID help bring an end to ageism?

From persistent health issues to technophobia, even before COVID, there were a lot of unhelpful stereotypes floating around about our older employees. Add to that the public discourse around the impact of the virus on older people, it appears that ageism is a persistent problem in Australian society and workplaces.

Age-related discrimination in the workplace continues to be rife in Australia, according to Karen Gately, founder of Corporate Dojo. 

Gately cited the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National prevalence survey of age discrimination in the workplace. The report found that 27% of employees over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination – with a third of this group having given up job hunting all together.

According to Gately, it was only last year that Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was driving an initiative to have employees in their 60s working longer, undertaking training to keep an eye on the jobs market. 

However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Australian workers have been impacted by job losses and reduced hours.   

“COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to point to evidence that challenges firmly held beliefs and attitudes,” Gately told HRD.

“HR leaders are wise to leverage this time to guide their organisation into a new world where many more people are seen as able to deliver, regardless of the stage of life they are at.”

READ MORE: Ageism: Which gender has it worse?

The harsh reality is that for older Australians, who still need or want to work, COVID-19 has made finding a job even more arduous.

Despite the fact that Australia has an ageing population, Gately revealed that very little has been done to overcome an ageist mindset that holds many organisations back from hiring older candidates.  

“As competition for fewer jobs has intensified, it’s safe to assume that many more mature age workers will be battling discriminatory barriers to securing the opportunities they deserve,” said Gately.

“Overcoming this challenge takes shifting the unconscious bias and unfounded assumptions about mature age workers that many HR people and leaders still hold.” 

The assumption that an older employee isn’t as driven or ambitious as their younger counterpart is a “classic example of the mindsets that lead to ageist decision making”, added Gately. 

“While of course some people do aspire to do as little as possible as soon as possible, in my experience many more do not,” said Gately.

“Most people want to continue to live a life a meaning and often work continues to be an important way of being able to do that.” 

However, ageism isn’t just a challenge faced by older workers.

Gately explained that younger candidates also often struggle to convince employers to give them a go - as they are often seen as immature and in need to additional training.

READ MORE: Why is ageism still rampant in Australia?

She explained that many young workers starting out in the world of work can find it extremely challenging to break into their ideal profesison.

When we immediately discount employees who’re too old, or too young, about to become parents or have young children, all that’s left is a “small slice of the working population to choose from”. 

“Organisations who are serious about tapping into the vast pool of talent, potential, wisdom and energy available need to open the minds of decision makers and shift limiting beliefs about how people need to work in order to make a valuable contribution,” continued Gately. 

She added that never before has HR had such a powerful opportunity to dramatically shift discriminatory mindsets as they have now.  Even though COVID-19 has brought with it many challenges, Gately said it has also forced most employers to rethink how people work. 

“Remote working and flexible work hours for example have suddenly become necessary and many employers are realising the benefits for not only employees, but also their organisation,” said Gately.  

“There has been debate for years about enabling people to have greater work/life balance and how flexible work can play a part in that. For example, it’s clear that we are not designed to sit in one spot for eight consecutive hours to perform at our best.”

The Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO has called for a unified response to ageism and COVID.

"It is time for solidarity across all age groups, time to call on these intergenerational relationships and foster these connections as a way of countering the loneliness that many people, younger and older, experience – and which is exacerbated as a result of these measures," she said.

"Think about ways the generations can work together; even simple steps such as supporting the social connections of someone in your life from a different generation," said Patterson.

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