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Coming to grips with the long, slow march of ageism in the workplace

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 13 August 2003

When I was in my mid-30s, the youthful copy assistants on my newspaper would tease me by putting press releases from the Council on the Ageing in my pigeon hole.

"Why have I been given this stuff from the council on the ageing?"
"We just put the releases where we think they should go," was the reply.

More water has passed under the bridge since then, with the current set of copy assistants looking very young indeed, and I am edging towards that demographic group that society discriminates strongly against - anyone over 50.


One piece of this strong discrimination was abolished recently. A section of the corporations law that requires directors on a company board older than 72 to meet various tests, such as gaining a 75 per cent majority when elected to the board, has been repealed. But there remains very strong discrimination against anyone over 50 - particularly males - a discrimination that has gone almost unnoticed by a media that screams endlessly about Aborigines and ethnic groups. This discrimination is practiced mainly by employers and takes the form of being very reluctant indeed to hire anyone above that age.

Don't believe this? Just try being above 50 and looking for a job, especially in the unskilled or semi-skilled categories. Those with skills have more chance of finding employment, but are still not in a comfortable position if they should, perhaps through no fault of their own, find themselves out of work. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for this prejudice. The Council on the Ageing (Australia), now the Councils on the Ageing (COTA) and National Senior Association (okay, I eventually had cause to speak to them) say that whenever they are mentioned in the media they get calls from older, unemployed workers telling them how hard it is to find job.

There have also been studies. A survey undertaken for the Department of Family and Community Services and released in February last year as part of a report entitled The Recruitment of Older Australian Workers: A survey of Employers in a High Growth Industry (pdf 657kb) shows that employers overwhelmingly preferred to hire people under 45.

In addition, Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys indicate that the workforce participation rates for workers, particularly men aged 45 and over, dropped sharply during the 1970s and, although there has since been some reversal - discounting a recession or two in which older workers suffer disproportionately - participation rates for older men, those over 55, are similar to their 15-19 year old grandsons and daughters. The employment experience for women is different. Their participation rates are lower but have been increasing in all age groups. A far more detailed discussion of these trends can be found in Structural ageing, labour market adjustment and the tax/transfer system by David Ingles.

Ingles also points to studies indicating entrenched employer prejudice against older workers. An article by two academics at La Trobe University's Graduate school of Management in Melbourne recently published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing, a COTA publication, also points to considerable discrimination by employers against older workers.

A proportion of these apparently forgotten workers shown by the figures noted above are voluntary drop outs. For a time it was common for ex-service personnel, policemen and public servants to claim permanent disability due to "stress" from work, take a payout, and move to a beach house. For that matter, retrenched workers have been known to collect their generous payouts, sell out of the housing markets in the capital cities and head for the cheap housing of, say, Broken Hill, to take up painting.


But there are also many older workers who want full-time work who have to take part-time or nothing at all. In the DFCS survey employers did not, or could not, give any reason for their reluctance to hire older workers, apart from a general feeling that those above 45 are generally likely to cause more problems than those under that age. There is no evidence to support that attitude, incidentally. Employers are prejudiced, plain and simple.

From my own experience I can recall one journalist I knew working on suburban newspapers in Melbourne in the early 1980s who reported on the police strike and remembered the gangster Squizzy Taylor - events and characters of 50 years previously.

"Taylor was just a police informer; that's all he was," he told me once.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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