Older unemployed and underemployed workers struggling to find roles due to ageism in recruiting
Answer this question: How easy is it for you to strike up a good conversation with your younger colleagues in the office kitchen?
- Older job applicants told they wouldn’t be a “cultural fit” for the role
- Young people are being actively preferenced for tech-heavy roles
- Recruiter says there is a need for older Australians to work on their job skills, but calls for workplace age diversity targets
It may seem like a strange question, but that’s a benchmark some companies are using to decide who to hire, one Sydney-based recruiter tells us, and the assumption is that older Australians won’t know what to say to their younger colleagues.
When PM spoke to 44-year-old John Allie last month his confidence had begun to take a hit because after more than 100 job applications, and 30 final round interviews, the feedback was always the same.
“You interviewed well, they really liked you, but they didn’t feel you were a cultural fit for the role,” Mr Allie said.
“I mean what does that even mean?”
Mr Allie feared it was a bit of a catch-all comment to imply he wouldn’t get along with his younger co-workers.
So, PM asked those involved in the hiring process if Mr Allie’s fears were well founded.
“The candidate you were talking about saying it’s used as a bit of a catch-all is true,” Mark Smith, the group managing director of recruitment firm people2people, said.
He shared his own example of a middle-aged candidate being passed over for not being the right cultural fit in a call centre.
“We had a more mature guy that went in for the job,” he said.
“That’s the way the client described it to us and that’s how we had to pass it onto him.”
In this example, the company went with a younger candidate.
“The reality is that they asked him how are you going to deal with this particularly stressful job with the inbound calls,” Mr Smith explained.
“He said, ‘well I would engage in some banter in the kitchen with my colleagues’.
“That’s when the [company] turned to us and said, ‘you know what, he’s probably not going to be able to engage in the banter in the kitchen with his colleagues because he really won’t have too much in common with them to talk about.
“So they went with another candidate who happened to be younger.”
Young favoured for tech-heavy roles
But it’s not just navigating office banter that’s tripping up older Australian job candidates, said Kathryn Macmillan, the managing director of 923 Recruitment.
Her team places white-collar workers in finance, administration, sales, marketing and technical roles, from entry level to senior management.
She told PM that, for many admin and tech-heavy roles, companies are actively preferencing younger candidates.
“Perfect example of that is Single Touch Payroll,” she said.
“People in accounts need to be able to navigate a huge amount of software: MyGov ID, Single Touch Payroll, and it’s really quite complex.
“So it’s that ability to be proficient in that technological use.”
PM asked Ms Macmillan if she was seeing a preference from companies for younger people to take on those roles as opposed to older people who perhaps aren’t “digital natives”.
“So for people who are older it’s very important that they address that perception.”
Figures from the partly government-funded Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research show 18 per cent of workers aged 55-64 believe their organisation discriminates on the basis of age in recruitment and selection.
This preference for younger candidates is starting to show up in the number of older Australians being forced onto government assistance programs.
Australians aged between 45 and 65 now make up about half of all unemployment support recipients, with more than 330,000 on the welfare payment as of September last year.
‘Pick a footy team to follow’
Recruiter Mark Smith said there was definitely a need for older Australians to work on their job skills, but also called on the Government to establish workplace age diversity targets to combat the problem.
Age discrimination commissioner Kay Patterson told PM a large number of companies were breaching the law by discriminating on the basis of age.
PM asked Dr Patterson if the Government had any plans to set an age diversity target, at least for the public sector.
“I don’t know if setting targets is the way to go about it,” she said.
“My team here have been working on training programs for the NSW State Government to encourage their recruiters to look towards a multi-generational workforce and making sure there’s diversity — not only in terms of gender — but in terms of age as well.
“I think it’s about educating employers that they benefit from having a range of age groups.”
In the meantime, Mark Smith’s advice for underutilised or unemployed older Australians is to be specific when asking for feedback from recruiters.
“Ask the recruiter ‘what particular competencies was I lacking?'” he said.
“‘How would you describe the culture?’ and get them to describe it back to him.”
Oh, and pick a footy team to follow … seriously.
“What that means is that if you’re going to work in an environment where you’ve got a lot of people who are interested in AFL, if you’ve moved to Melbourne, you’ve got to pick up a team.”
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