Businesses reject older workers: report

Nearly 50 per cent of businesses reluctant to employ older Australians

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Older Australians increasingly locked out of the job market.

Older Australians increasingly locked out of the job market.


Report criticises Australian businesses for ageism in recruitment


If you're older and looking for a job, you already know it's a tough world out there.

Not only are there too few vacancies, but it appears recruiters are actively discriminating against the mature applicant.

New research published by the Australian HR Institute, together with the Human Rights Commission shows almost half of Australian businesses say they are reluctant to recruit older workers, highlighting the continuing prevalence of ageism in the workforce, despite our ageing population.

The report, Employing and Retaining Older Workers, has exposed the uphill battle many older unemployed people face to get off the dole queue; and the experience and skills that businesses are missing out on by discriminating against this cohort.

The research surveyed 604 human resources professionals and business leaders with 46.7 per cent of respondents saying their organisation would be reluctant to recruit workers over a certain age, although the specific age barrier varied among respondents.

Nearly 50 per cent of businesses surveyed said they would be reluctant to employ older workers.

Nearly 50 per cent of businesses surveyed said they would be reluctant to employ older workers.

The report also found the age at which workers are considered 'older' is becoming progressively 'younger' with 28 per cent of respondents defining an "older worker" as 61 to 65, making it the most commonly nominated age range. However, almost 17 per cent classified older workers as aged 51-54 in 2021, a six-percentage-point jump since 2018.

This is despite more workplaces reporting they have an older workforce - 12.3 per cent said more than half their workforce was aged over 50, an increase of 6.3 per cent since 2018.

It's both alarming and depressing that despite changes to the age structure of society, with more Australians wanting to work into their later years - either for personal satisfaction or financial security - they can be locked out of the job market by the ageist attitudes of businesses and recruiters.

Data from 2019 showed 75 per cent of people aged 55-59 participated in the labour force (working or looking for work) - up from 70 per cent in 2009 and 60 per cent in 1999; 59 per cent of those aged 60-64 years participated in the workforce - up from 50 per cent in 2009 and 33 per cent in 1999; 20 per cent of people over 70 did some paid work.

However, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Survey, prior to COVID-19, the official median time searching for work for someone aged 55-64 who has been unemployed more than a year is 166 weeks (or just over 3 years).

Many of these people will never be in paid work again, and will be forced to rely on the below poverty-level JobSeeker payment until they become eligible for the age pension - which at present is 66 years, going up to 66.5 in July this year and to 67 years in 2023.

However, Australia isn't unique in its ageist attitudes. A recent report by the UK Centre for Ageing Better entitled Doddery but dear? foundone in three people within the UK reported experiencing age prejudice or age discrimination.

The UK report gives this description of Ageism: "Ageism is a combination of how we think about age (stereotypes), how we feel about age (prejudice) and how we behave in relation to age (discrimination)".

It says that ageism has broad and far reaching negative consequences on both physical and mental health.

Ageism is a combination of how we think about age (stereotypes), how we feel about age (prejudice) and how we behave in relation to age (discrimination) - Doddery but dear, report into ageism by the UK Centre for Ageing Better

Ageism has also been cited as one of the major causes of elder abuse.

Australia's Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson said the findings of the Australian research show too many businesses are still missing out on the advantages that come from hiring and retaining older workers.

"Older workers bring professional knowledge and experience to the workplace. Sixty per cent of respondents said the departure of older workers had caused a loss of key skills in their organisation, yet businesses are still failing to learn this lesson.

"Age diverse workplaces are good for business and for the economy. Failing to hire and retain older workers is a missed opportunity for everyone," Dr Patterson said.

In a recent speech to the Diversity Council of Australia on the effects of the pandemic on the employment prospects of older people, Dr Patterson said age discrimination was a significant problem in Australia.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson.

"When it comes to the workplace, age discrimination can occur at the point of recruitment, as well as in relation to opportunities for training, promotion and flexible work practices-it can also affect how strategies around retirement are approached."

Stereotypes busted

Dr Patterson listed and busted some of the stereotypes and myths around older workers:

  • Older employees aren't committed'- research shows that that older employees may be the most loyal.
  • Older people are not up-to-date with technology - an Office of the e-Safety Commissioner report, 'Understanding the digital behaviours of older Australians', viii] found that approximately 70 per cent of older Australians use the internet multiple times a day.
  • Research shows that older adults tend to score higher on 'crystallised intelligence'[ix]-wisdom, 'getting the gist' and verbal reasoning. A 2013 Australian Institute of Management study[x] found older and younger employees contribute equally to the workplace, although possibly in different ways.
  • 'You get more stupid as you age'- a 2012 Monash University and Australian Institute of Management study[xi] found overall there is no justification for differentiating older employees based on their intelligence, problem solving or leadership ability.
  • 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'- recent Benevolent Society research[xii] indicates many Australians think it's better to train young people, believing that older Australians are less capable of learning new skills. However, older employees are generally keen to upskill or reskill, especially when offered meaningful training opportunities.
  • Older employees 'hog jobs' - this is known as the 'lump of labour' fallacy, disproved by numerous reputable studies. The number of jobs is not finite and there are considerable economic benefits in keeping people who are willing and able to work employed for longer - it's good for individuals (provides a sense of purpose and income), businesses (crystallised intelligence, corporate history) and the economy.

"As Australia's population ages, and our health span - the number of healthy years in older age - increases, along with lifespan, organisations need to be prepared and have strategies in place for employing and retaining older employees," said Dr Patterson.

Australian HR Institute's chief executive, Sarah McCann-Bartlett said fewer than a third of business leaders reported consulting with older workers on issues of specific concern to their workplace.

She said the survey's results highlight the persistent prevalence of ageism within Australian businesses.

"Our research has shown that a disproportionate number of older workers are facing discrimination in the workforce, which is an issue that unconscious bias plays a big part in.

"Ageism against older workers doesn't even necessarily stem from negative feelings - older people are often viewed as loyal and reliable. However, when nearly a quarter of businesses don't actively implement any recruitment practices to encourage age diversity, ageism is the inevitable result," Ms McCann-Bartlett said.