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Tackling age bias can help fill the labour gap

08:45am September 27 2022

More than 50 per cent of mature-age workers report having experienced ageism at work, according to a survey. (Getty)

Employers are struggling to embrace the adage that “age is just a number”, and it could be costing the economy. 

At a time of chronic labour shortages across many industries, it makes sense to tap into the growing pool of older workers – there are now more than 4 million people aged between 55 and 69, making up almost 17 per cent of the population. 

These experienced Australians have much to offer, but often struggle to find the right workplace opportunity. 

The workforce participation rate falls considerably after age 55 – it stood at about 68 per cent last year for the 55 to 64 age group, compared with more than 80 per cent in younger cohorts, according to government statistics 

Prevailing attitudes among employers towards older workers are among the biggest barriers to lifting that participation rate. 

A recent survey by Silver & Wise, an organisation which helps mature-age workers find fulfilling employment, found that more than 50 per cent had experienced ageism at work.  

“We know many organisations are reluctant to hire people over the age of 50,” says Hunter Leonard, Silver & Wise’s founder.

“It isn’t the gap between when we retire and when we die that is becoming important, it is the gap between when we choose to retire and the day that people start being ageist towards us and denying us the opportunity for full and meaningful workforce participation.”

Hunter Leonard, founder of Silver & Wise. (Supplied)

Older job seekers continue to run into perceptions among some hiring managers that they will be more costly, and less technologically proficient, than younger candidates. In fact, research by the Australian Human Rights Commission found the most common type of age-related discrimination, experienced by 67 per cent of Australians aged 54 to 65, was being turned down from a position.

Those perceptions are often misplaced, while to pass over the older candidate means potentially missing out on the well-honed life skills and experience they bring to the table. 

A 2020 study by bodies including the World Economic Forum and OECD showed that investment in a multi-generational workforce would create a more efficient, productive and profitable economy, potentially raising a country’s GDP per capita by almost 19 per cent over three decades. 

Giving everyone a “fair go” is part of our national identity, and embracing older Australians as an integral part of the workforce is just an extension of that. It’s also vital to their personal and financial wellbeing: contributing meaningful work provides each of us with a sense of purpose and productivity, adding to our feelings of self-worth.

A 2022 government report identified key areas where efforts to reduce the barriers to employment of mature age workers are likely to be most effective.

They range from boosting training opportunities in sectors where older workers are more likely to need support, to targeted subsidies to help meet their wage expectations. 

The report also said more work needs to be done to match employers to suitable mature-age workers, alongside a broader effort to raise awareness of the value they can bring to an organisation. 

Ageism Awareness Day on October 7 can help to kick-start the conversation. It follows the UN's International Day of Older Persons, an annual event held on October 1 which encourages member countries to challenge negative stereotypes and misconceptions about older persons and ageing.

One small but meaningful step everyone can take is the Every Age Counts Pledge.

"I stand for a world without ageism where all people of all ages are valued and respected and their contributions are acknowledged. I commit to speak out and take action to ensure older people can participate on equal terms with others in all aspects of life."

Lali Wiratunga is Chair of 50PLUS, a Westpac Employee Action Group which aims to create a supportive culture around the diverse needs of mature age employees. He also serves as Chair of Plate It Forward, which donates restaurant-quality meals and provides training and employment opportunities to vulnerable community members. 

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