Too old to work at 55? You’ve got to be kidding

June 13, 2016 12:00am
Karen Brooks

Believing we’re all somehow professionally and socially redundant or our ability to adapt seizes once we reach 55 is ridiculous, depressing and offensive.
Reports emerged last week that managers at Gladstone Power Station (GPS) were intending to get rid of workers aged over 55 years because they were too old to meet “challenging changes.”

According to the bosses, keeping them would impact upon productivity. The reasons behind this “early retirement” plan were generally slammed, arousing deep concerns about attitudes towards older workers in broader social and cultural terms.

Whether or not GPS is justified in their decision from a business perspective or some employees are eager to take up the redundancy packages being offered, there’s something both cavalier and indifferent about the announcement. It indicates that age discrimination is not only alive and well, but in this instance, professionally endorsed.

The irony that GPS is singling out older workers for fear they may lack the requisite energy for a power plant appears to have bypassed management.

We know we’re all living longer — according to a Productivity Commission Report on ageing in Australia released in 2014, a female born in 2012 will live, on average, to 94.4 years while a male will live to an average 91.6 years.

The same report discussed the increase in pensionable age from 67 to 70 years, arguing it would boost participation rates in the workforce by 3-10 per cent.

But as columnist Susie O’Brien asks, “what’s the point of making older people work longer if there are no jobs for them to do?”


Before you continue reading: What’s your plan to keep over-55s in the workforce? We’ve had a number of great suggestions at My Big Idea — now share yours.

In the Chandler-McLeod white paper entitled Coming of Age: The Impact of an Ageing Workforce on Australian Business, published in 2013, it was noted that by 2044, 25 per cent of the population would be over 65 years. The importance of “grey workers” (a title so laden with negative connotations, it has to go) to productivity, how they display a strong work ethic and, importantly, possess a “growing financial imperative to do so following the blow to their savings during the GFC,” was also covered.

Age discrimination is alive and well.
Despite this, mature workers (depending which piece of legislation you read, anyone between 45-55 years) are under-represented in the workforce and “over presented in the joblessness rate.”

The paper also revealed something we instinctively know and the decision taken by the bosses at GPS has made overt: age discrimination is rampant.

Talk to many young workers, and they’ll tell you they are also discriminated against.

Damned if you’re young (lack experience; have a sense of entitlement); damned if you’re older (cost more, just cruising till retirement).

The safest place to be in terms of working age seems to be somewhere in the middle — probably around the ages of the GPS powerbrokers.

In other words, stereotypes and clichés about older workers (and younger) abound. Yet, it seems to me that when it comes to work, age shouldn’t really matter. Poor or great attitudes towards work, loyalty, skills-set, don’t fall into age brackets, but are individual. Experience, if the mind is open and willing, is something one accrues at any age.

Assuming older workers cannot embrace “challenging changes” actually beggars belief, considering they’ve probably lived and worked through more change than many of us can ever imagine.

While older workers may cost more to keep on the books, there are enormous benefits to managers in terms of output, skill and knowledge transfer and leadership development.
Yes, older workers do have to take responsibility for their careers, keep their skills relevant, and while many are reluctant to apply for jobs, they do have to pursue opportunities.

Believing we’re all somehow professionally and socially redundant or our ability to adapt seizes once we reach 55 is ridiculous, depressing and offensive.

But it’s no wonder so many view older people that way, particularly if they don’t know many mature folk in their personal or working lives — just look at the majority of representations of ageing in popular culture.

Advertisements for various insurance policies — from cars to funerals (aren’t they jolly!) feature grey-haired, smiling and often stupid older people asking simple questions and looking gloriously satisfied once they understand they can receive discounts or are still eligible for cover, as if they have no concerns but those.

Ageing celebrities, particularly women, are either mostly absent from our screens, have had so much cosmetic tweaking done (looking at you Sly Stallone), they’re parodies of their younger selves, or (with too few exceptions) feature in comic/curmudgeonly/dependent roles.

It’s easy to be glib about those over 55 when the box you tick on various surveys is well above it. We should heed Mark Twain, who wrote, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

I mind that older people are being nudged out of the workforce before they’re ready, and think it really matters — not only in policy terms, but social and cultural ones as well.

Time to have a real conversation about this, before we get any older.

Source: News Corp Australia Network

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