When Gary Martin started writing about ageism in the workplace and sharing his articles on professional networking site LinkedIn, he was stunned by the response.
- Studies estimate one-third of employers are reluctant to hire mature workers
- Employers and mature-age employees can both reinforce ageist stereotypes
- To re-enter the workplace, mature-age jobseekers must be prepared to diversify
The head of the Australian Institute of Management (WA) was bombarded with tales of discrimination by older job seekers and workers, some of whom were only in their early 40s.
“It opened the floodgates,” he said.
“I would have to use the word ‘rampant’ to describe age discrimination in the workplace.
“That’s really because I believe that this form of discrimination is the most normalised.
“Organisations don’t counter it in the same way they might counter sex, race or disability-type discrimination.”
Corinne Brown was among the job-seekers who contacted him.
Despite being a qualified leadership trainer, and with 40 years of experience across various industries, the 58-year-old couldn’t even get an interview, let alone a job.
“I probably apply for between 40 and 50 jobs a month, everything from admin, to training, to retail and hospitality, but I’m very lucky if I get three responses back,” she said.
She struggled to get any feedback from employers on why she had been unsuccessful, bar a few confusing comments and questions.
“The recruiter said it was a young company and the oldest person was 35 and did I think I would fit in with that age group?” she said.
“I just thought it was a ridiculous thing to ask.”
Corporate speak for ‘you’re too old’
Professor Martin has heard it all before.
“More often than not, it’s corporate speak for ‘we think you’re too old’,” he said.
“You’re over-qualified” was another popular excuse provided by employers for not hiring an older applicant.
Research backs up the anecdotal evidence of discrimination against older workers.
Although there has been an improvement, a recent study found up to a third of Australian employers were still reluctant to hire mature workers.
This comes despite laws making it illegal to discriminate against anyone in the workplace because of their age.
So what can workplaces do to stamp out ageism?
Perth-based workplace psychologist Kim Cullen said discrimination was generally perpetuated by stereotypes that mature workers were set in their ways, couldn’t be trained and were more prone to absenteeism.
She said employers and workers both had a role to play to counter ageism and offered these suggestions.
- Watch out for unconscious bias against older workers, such as exclusion from jobs, training or social activities
- Use older workers as mentors to capitalise on their experience, organisational memory and industry memory
- Avoid assumptions that older workers are waiting to retire, are set in their ways, can’t be trained or are prone to absenteeism
- Offer flexible working arrangements
- Ensure (from the top down) that the language used in the workplace matches the organisation’s mission statement of equal opportunity
- Avoid reinforcing ageist stereotypes with comments like “I’m too old for this” or “I’ll leave that for the young people”
- Stay updated with the latest developments and trends in your industry
- Ask for training — don’t wait to be invited
- Offer yourself up as a mentor to younger workers
- Discuss your plan for the future with your manager to dispel any thoughts that you are waiting for retirement
- Keep your skills up to date
- Stay linked in with your industry — take advantage of free networking events.
- Only include your recent and relevant experience in your resume — recruiters will often only scan CVs.
- Focus on what you can bring to the role — capitalise on your experience to give you the edge over younger candidates.
Breaking the stereotypes
While many workforces needed to change, Ms Cullen said she had witnessed others that had taken positive steps to overcome age discrimination.
Hardware giant Bunnings’ workforce includes staff aged from 15 to 80 and nearly a third of its workforce is aged over 50.
At healthcare group Bupa, 26 per cent of the workforce are aged 50-plus and company research has found that its workers who were aged over 60 took fewer sick days than younger staff.
Barbie Dixon, 58, who has been at the company for 42 years, dispels many of the other common stereotypes that face older workers.
She has worked full-time at the organisation since she started as a records clerk at the age of 16.
Far from being set in her ways, she helped other workers learn new systems.
She attributed her longevity in the job to keeping her energy levels up — she runs, swims and goes to the gym — and remained positive about her value to the company.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sometimes a bit slower [at learning technology] than others, but I also have a lot more knowledge than others and that’s what I have hung my hat on,” she said.
Diversification is the key
As for Corinne Brown, she has had a breakthrough of sorts, but has had to move out of the comfort zone of her profession as a trainer.
After months of struggling on the Newstart allowance while looking for a job that matches her qualifications, she is set to take up a position on a Pilbara mine site driving trucks for a living.
“To be honest, it’s not what I normally do. But you know what … it’s a job,” she said.
“It’s exciting, a little bit scary — well a lot scary, these trucks are massive — but I am really looking forward to the challenge.
“I think you have to get out of your comfort zone and not just be looking for work in your area of expertise. Broaden your horizon.”