Fighting ageism: The often overlooked benefits of older workers

Will policy changes provide incentives for people to keep working?

Employing mature-age workers is a win-win situation for employee and business alike, as well as being vital for long-term competitiveness.

David Tarr is a brand management executive whose career has included senior roles at the Sydney Opera House and Destination NSW. Two years ago, at the age of 51, he decided to send his CV out to recruiters to test the employment waters.

On each occasion, Tarr received a call back from a recruiter, usually within an hour of sending his resume. 

“We would have a conversation and everything would be very positive,” he says.

“The recruiter would sound very excited and tell me I was just what their client was looking for. Then we’d organise a date and time to meet.” 

"Managers think discrimination kicks in around 54, but it actually starts at 48." Carolyn Gallaway, Diversity Dimensions

After a few meetings, Tarr recognised a pattern: there would be a moment when the recruiter would visibly withdraw from the conversation.

“There was a stark contrast between their attitude on the phone and how things were going face to face,” he says.

“They were not engaged anymore, and I realised I was being discriminated against because of my age. If I was being discriminated against, I thought, there must be an enormous number of people out there having the same experience.”

An age-old problem

Tarr’s assumption was correct. A workplace age discrimination study (PDF) conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission and released in 2015 reveals that more than a quarter of Australians over 50 have experienced age discrimination in the workplace in the past two years.

During this period, three in five people over 50 and looking for paid work were discriminated against due to their age.

Consider the classic opening to job ads that describe a workplace as “young and vibrant” – it is a virtual Keep Out! sign to anybody over a certain age. General employability and opportunities for promotion and training are also negatively affected as a person ages.

There is a myth that mature-age workers are more prone to health problems, but the commission notes that mature workers are less likely to take sick leave than their younger colleagues.

Professor John Piggott, from the UNSW Australia Business School, who is also a director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR), says the issue of age discrimination is far reaching.

“The impression one has is that with many jobs, when a recruitment agency is hired to find people, there is an implicit or sometimes even an explicit age range that might cut off at 40 or 45,” says Piggott.

“That makes it difficult to test the validity or even the feasibility of expanding our mature labour force.”

Economic imperative

CEPAR research finds that in the three decades to 2009, there was a 29 per cent increase in life expectancy at age 65. By 2050, there will be around 7.2 million Australians over the age of 65, which is 2.5 times the current number, but the working-age population between 15 and 64 will only be 1.2 times its current size.

Piggott points to an increase in mature labour force participation in the first 12 years of this century.

“That has currently levelled off,” he says, “but demographic pressures and increasing life expectancy will mean such growth is a continuing long-term trend.

"[Older workers] bring maturity, wisdom and experience." Hunter Leonard, Silver & Wise

“Policy changes, such as the increase in the Age Pension to 67, will provide financial incentives for people to keep working. People are also increasingly adjusting to the idea that if they’re 65, they have a life expectancy that takes them to 90-plus.” 

The combined effect of increased life expectancy and a top-heavy population means our nation’s workforce will need to reflect the general population. This means organisations must become adept at attracting and retaining mature workers.

Professional development: Diversity on the job: the importance of diversity and the changing workplace

A mindset shift is required, says Carolyn Gallaway, CEO and founder of diversity consulting and recruitment agency Diversity Dimensions. She notes that the assumption of mature workers having outdated skills and not being good with technology is negated by research that identifies those aged between 55 and 64 as the fastest-growing group of IT users.

Encouraging a workforce that values mature-age workers begins with leadership and engagement. Gallaway says an engagement strategy must align with a broader business strategy.

“Look at the specific benefits such as mentoring and less absenteeism,” she says.

“Look at the facts around other parts of the workforce. Research shows, for instance, that managers think discrimination kicks in around 54, but it actually starts at 48.”

"More than a quarter of Australians over 50 have experienced age discrimination in the workplace in the past two years." Australian Human Rights Commission 

Strong mature-age workforce strategies begin with understanding the value of older workers within the broader business strategy. What motivates mature workers? Where do their skill sets lie and what value do they bring to an organisation that others do not?

“It may seem obvious, but they bring maturity, wisdom and experience,” says Hunter Leonard, founder of Silver & Wise, which provides training, mentoring and business opportunities for older workers.

“There’s plenty of research to suggest that mature-age individuals are more loyal and productive than other age cohorts.” 

Gallaway believes that managers need to change tack when it comes to older employees. “Creating an environment where the conversation is a positive and open one, focused on the next stage of one’s career rather than one’s retirement, is critical. These conversations have not been encouraged traditionally and, as a result, this is not an approach that is well developed in many organisations,” she says, adding that the result is often missed opportunities.

And what of David Tarr, the brand manager who had such negative experiences with recruiters, thanks to his age? Rather than complaining about his treatment, Tarr instead decided to use his talent in order to make positive change.

Over the past 18 months, he has developed an e-recruitment platform designed specifically around choosing workers on an acquired skills basis rather than on their age. Various corporates and government departments have already shown interest in being part of the pilot program.

“The platform will directly facilitate the broadening of the Australian talent pool to include qualified and skilled mature-age workers,” says Tarr. “We plan to have the platform in the market by mid-2017.”

As always, natural selection is an unstoppable force. In this case, if the recruiters can’t innovate, they will be disrupted. And it may just be the mature-age workers who make that disruption happen.

Related: Is 'refirement' the new retirement?

Valuing diversity: a case study

Businesses that are relatively advanced in their approach to mature-age workers are few and far between. But there are some notable exceptions. Bunnings, for example, is well-known for its re-purposing of older and experienced tradespeople into highly knowledgeable floor staff. The other go-to industry for showcasing mature-age workers is, perhaps unsurprisingly, aged care.

Sam Galluccio, general manager human resources with Catholic Healthcare Limited (CHL), says the average age of staff within his organisation is 47. So when CHL places a job advertisement, they certainly don’t begin with the typical “young and vibrant workplace” spiel.

Staff at CHL range from 16 to 84 years of age, meaning that at any time there could be four generations working side by side. It’s a juggling act that many industries could learn from.

“We don’t want to create any particular strategy that only caters for one generation and disenfranchises another,” says Galluccio.

“Our reward and recognition programs have to be out of the box. They have to be flexible and capable of meeting all the various needs. 

"Policy changes will provide incentives for people to keep working." Professor John Piggott, UNSW Australia Business School

“For instance, we’ve been trialling a points-based reward and recognition program for people who do great work.

“With those points, they are able to redeem something of their choice, something that suits them and their tastes.”

Galluccio says the motivations of the younger generations are completely different to those of mature workers. For younger employees, it’s all about income, career prospects and other opportunities, such as travel. At the older end, it’s about flexibility, principles and satisfaction. For all groups, it’s a feeling of being respected and valued.

“Everything we do is about being flexible and catering for a wide range of age brackets,” he says.

“Expectations within the workplace change alongside those within the community, and you have to be mindful of that. 

“When you look at employee benefits, is long-service leave or grandparent leave more important than maternity leave? They should be equally valued by the organisation.”

Read next: Good-bye gold watch: How mature-age employees are changing the workforce


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