Ageist Australia reviles instead of reveres its elders

The Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination Elizabeth Broderick thinks it’s a good question and says the answer is something the nation should grapple with together.

Today Broderick launches a new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, Age discrimination – exposing the hidden barrier for mature age workers. Compiled from a range of research, academic papers and government studies, the report paints a picture of exclusion, ill informed assumptions and even humiliation for older people in Australia.

Broderick, who is also the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, hopes the report will “elevate” the conversation about prejudice that exists towards older workers in particular. She argues that given Australia’s ageing workforce, ageism is as much an economic issue as a social justice issue.

By the way, “mature age workers” are officially defined as 45 or older.

According to the report, ageism is the systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people simply because they are older. Older people are not seen as individuals but rather lumped together.

For example, all older people are seen as a higher occupational health & safety risk or unable to learn new technologies.

The report suggests that ageism has worsened with the shift away from valuing experience to the “efficiency and compliance over quality model also known as the work intensification model. It is based on the thinking that older people are experienced but high risk and inefficient and younger people [are] inexperienced and compliant.”

It looks at issues such as the way older people are screened out of the recruitment process by employers instructing a recruitment agency not to put forward any candidate for interview aged over 40, or job interviews conducted by young people unable to identify with older candidates.

While employers cannot specify age in a job ad, the report claims words such as “innovative”, ‘dynamic’ and “creative” are code for “young”.

Once at work older employees are passed over for promotion or denied training because they are not deemed worth the investment of time and money. When it comes to redundancies older people are often targeted as “dead wood” and the first to go.

The report focuses on employment but it does flag several other issues associated with age prejudice towards older people.

The lucrative anti-aging industry offering everything from drugs to cosmetic surgery reinforces “the belief that old age is repugnant … promising relief to those who can pay.” And on television screens older people are too often portrayed as “bumbling, crotchety or senile”.

In the health sector, symptoms in older patients such as balance problems, memory loss and depression are dismissed from the outset as ‘old age’ instead of treatable conditions.

Broderick says age discrimination is “entrenched” in Australia and can be found in almost every sphere of public life.

She believes we need a social movement not unlike to womens movement to free us from our mindset that aging is something to fear and fight.

“We need social change within the community. [Ageism] doesn’t just exist – it thrives,” says Broderick adding that unlike other forms of discrimination ageism is not yet “at the point of being stigmatised.”

In other words, it’s socially acceptable to be ageist towards older people.

Over the years I have received hundreds of emails from mature age workers detailing their war with prejudice at work. One man in his 50s told me of being shocked by the level of ageism here when he returned home from years in America. He eventually left our shores and found a good job in Hong Kong. When I published his comments I was inundated with emails from Australians in their 50s and 60s who had returned to Europe, North America or Asia so they could resume their careers.

For the older people reading this, I would love to hear your views on whether you feel you have been discriminated against due to age. To be fair, I’d also like to know if you held clichéd views about older people when you were young.

And young people, be honest and tell me how you want to be treated when you are 45 plus.

If this just becomes a young versus oldies beat up session then we will miss an opportunity to think about whether Australia has created a society that excludes older people from work opportunities, wellness strategies and a dignified role in daily life.

While there is a lot of prejudice out there – and none of it good – ageism against older people is the issue that should get everyone’s attention because if you are lucky and take good care of yourself it could happen to you one day.


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