Ageism awareness in the workplace with Australia’s Acting Age Discrimination Commissioner and President, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM

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Every age counts – Ageism Awareness Day – Saturday 7 October

Professor Rosalind Croucher AM shares her thoughts about ageism in the workplace and what businesses could do to make their workplace more age friendly.

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Studio photograph of Professor Rosalind Croucher AM seated and smiling at the camera.

What are the common misconceptions or assumptions about ageism?

We all need to understand ageism as an underlying driver of workplace age discrimination – and challenge the myths and stereotypes about older people. The fact is Australians are getting older, and over the next 30 years our population will become the oldest it’s ever been. Australian Bureau of Statistics data reports that the number of people aged 65 and over will double to nearly nine million, and people aged 85 and older will triple to two million.

Australians are also increasingly continuing in paid employment to older ages. As of July 1, the pension age has risen to 67, while a combination of flexible work arrangements, labour shortages, and cost of living pressures means people are either choosing to, or required to, work longer.

Ageist stereotypes are deeply rooted in cultural values and norms that view ageing and older age as undesirable. They can foster a belief or assumption that older workers are somehow less competent, less capable of learning, have declining skills, and are less equipped to adapt to technological change than younger workers. But this is not the reality and it is not what the research shows.

In April this year, for a fifth time, the Commission partnered with the Australian Human Resources Institute on Employing and Retaining Older Workers, a report providing insights into the employment climate and the shift in perceptions around our ageing workforce. The survey found 1 in 6 organisations will not consider hiring people aged 65 and above, while only a quarter said they were open to hiring those aged 65 and above ‘to a large extent’. Disappointingly, it also found 18 per cent of employers still say they have an age above which they ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ won’t recruit. The good news is that this is an improvement from a decade ago, but it is not good enough.

The reluctance to recruit older workers appears to stand in contrast with employers’ actual experiences of working with them. According to the survey, many employers reported no difference between older and younger workers in terms of job performance, concentration, ability to adapt to change, energy levels, and creativity.

The Commission’s recent report Changing perspectives: testing an ageism intervention released in July this year, presents the findings of an evaluation of a brief, one-off ageism awareness session for workers in aged care and community settings. Participants attended a 2.5-hour interactive ageism awareness workshop and completed pre- and post-workshop surveys designed to measure attitudes towards older people and ageing. A follow-up survey conducted 2–3 months after the workshop found that:

  • 90% had rethought the way they communicate with older adults
  • 87% had discussed ageism with others
  • 86% actively thought about actions they could take to address ageist attitudes in their workplace
  • 82% reconsidered their attitudes towards ageing.

Interestingly, participants gave many examples of specific work practices they had changed as a result of the workshop and said many things about its positive effects:

“I have been much more attuned to my unconscious biases and assumptions around ageing.”

“No more assumptions about someone’s ability to do something, no matter what age – including my own.”

These findings suggest that while ageism may be the most normalised and socially accepted form of prejudice, it is also malleable and amenable to change.

Is there an example or experience you could share where ageism was particularly prevalent?

One that was brought to my attention recently was the experiences of pioneering Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who once said: “all my life I faced sexism and racism, and then when I hit 40 – ageism.”

Many of us are aware of Hollywood’s continued shortcomings when it comes to diversity, and the ongoing fight for representation on the small and silver screens. But even much closer to home, ‘age’ is not what comes to people’s minds when we talk about diversity in the workplace.

Sometimes it is how age is completely absent from discussions around workplaces that suggests older workers are not valued. A 2020 global survey of 6,000 employers from 36 countries found that more than half of businesses did not include age in their diversity and inclusion policies. We need to shift that thinking and challenge it. Older people are valuable to workplaces and to communities.

What are some ways employers could adopt to make their workplace more age friendly?

Let’s start with grounding the fact that older people are probably less likely to complain about a workplace not being age friendly than employees might about other forms of discrimination. This is added complexity of internalised ageism and society expectations, it can contribute to people thinking, “I’ve had my time”, “I can’t keep up with the technological changes” and so on.

Between 2021–22, the Commission received 271 complaints related to age discrimination, which equates to roughly 6 per cent of all complaints received. Most of these complaints were about employment and came from complainants aged 55 and over. Percentagewise, this is not a large number of complaints, and the actual experiences of discrimination may be far deeper and wider than these numbers reflect for various reasons.

Ageism also tends to be gendered, with women further subjected to the intersecting prejudices of age, ethnicity, and gender bias. It’s clear that lessons still need to be learned and older workers need to be included and valued. Employers who ignore the experience and qualities of older people, and the advantages of the ‘5-Generation’ workforce (where 5 generations work together), do so at their peril.

Respectful workplaces and great leaders go much further than recognising gender and sexual harassment as potential risks, but also see the inherent risks of ageism. Creating and maintaining an age diverse workforce is more reflective of our society, and just good business.

Employers can demonstrate their commitment to building an inclusive workplace by:

  • having clear policies about age discrimination and communicating these to managers and staff, regularly checking that the practices reflect the policies
  • promoting flexible work as ‘business as usual’ for employees of all ages
  • ensuring older workers have the same opportunities to access training, mentoring, and leadership as workers of other ages
  • providing reciprocal knowledge transfer opportunities, i.e., for older workers to mentor and train younger/new staff, or cross-mentoring programs
  • ensure recruitment practices are not age biased.

I urge all employers to see potential employees for the skills and potential they offer to businesses irrespective of age. With experience can come great wisdom, not to mention adaptable skills and a long career of experience.

As our former Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO regularly said, “the culture we accept now will be the culture we inherit.”

If we don’t further develop and foster healthier workplace cultures now which include age diverse workforce, I harbour great concerns for the environment we’ll pass on.

More information

Find out more about Ageism Awareness Day (7 October) by visiting EveryAGE Counts.

If you would like information about mature age employment, visit Mature Age Hub.

Read part 1 of our interview with former Age Discrimination Commissioner, Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO where she shares her thoughts and insights on mature age employment.

Correct at time of publication.