What to do when you face ageism in the workplace
By my 40s, I hope to be very comfortably established in my career, ensconced in a warm blanket of experience that makes me more valuable than ever to my employer.
But here’s a terrifying truth: age discrimination can start affecting you from 45, according to Diversity Council Australia.
Stereotypes about being too rigid, slow or technologically unsavvy abound and, depending on the type of work you do, that can mean work starts to dry up, or you find yourself unable to bounce back after redundancy.
As for those over 50, nearly 30 per cent of respondents to a 2018 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission said their organisation was reluctant or unwilling to hire anyone over that age.
So if you’re finding yourself edged out at work, you’re not alone.
Executive to unemployed
Tim Hessell was 48 when a company restructure made his role as an HR executive redundant. It took him two years to find another full-time position, despite having 25 years of experience under his belt.
That’s when things really started to unravel.
Finding a permanent position proved impossible, so he took on a series of contract positions.
“While that started out positively, over the years that whittled away until at some stage, in one year, I went for 60 different roles and was unsuccessful in all of them,” Tim says.
“[I had gone] from what once would be regarded as a successful career as an executive, to then being unemployable for whatever reason.”
No-one ever told Tim he was too old to hire. Recruiters were more likely to say, “‘You’re over qualified’ or ‘You’re not the right fit’ or ‘We think it’s better we give this role to someone who can grow through it, rather than yourself’.”
It was a demoralising experience, leaving him anguished and confused. He wondered whether there was something wrong with him.
“Then I looked at other colleagues in similar industries who were [having a] similar sort of experience.” He realised wider factors were at play.
He decided to tackle the problem from another angle: going back to university to do a PhD on the causes of ageism in the workplace.
But not everyone has to take such drastic measures. Here are some first steps to consider, as well as advice on activating Plan B.
Laws around age discrimination
The first thing to know is that age discrimination in Australia is “absolutely illegal”, says Robert Tickner, co-chair of the EveryAge Counts campaign and former Labor Party cabinet minister.
“Every state and territory, plus the national parliament, has outlawed age discrimination,” he says.
“So if people do think they’ve got some clear evidence of discrimination, they may wish to talk to the Human Rights Commission.”
The Commission’s Australia-wide information line is 1300 656 419.
However, complaints can be hard to test, says Age Discrimination Commissioner Kay Patterson.
She shares examples of two cases that were successful:
- A 56-year-old who stopped getting casual shifts as a kitchen hand. He was told a younger person was replacing him to cope with the busy Christmas period. He received approximately $1,800 in lieu of four weeks’ notice.
- A 75-year-old who was falsely accused of breaching work safety rules and had his hours cut, after the HR manager found out his age. He was awarded around $4,500.
With all of us bound to age (if we’re lucky), Dr Patterson has this warning for employers: “The climate you set will be the climate you inherit.”
CV and skills check
While the onus is very much on employers to change their attitudes towards older workers, there are a few things you can do to bias-proof your CV.
“You don’t have to put in your date of birth, and you don’t have to put your entire employment history [on your CV],” Mr Tickner says.
“You can skilfully craft a resume that highlights your skills rather than all the jobs you’ve had.”
For the jobs you do list, perhaps stick to more recent roles.
If you’ve had the same role for several decades and now find yourself out of work, consider refreshing your skills.
That could mean doing a TAFE course, or online courses — anything “so you project that your skills remain relevant today,” Tim says.
Also think about how you can demonstrate the depth of your knowledge and experience.
“Older workers sometimes take a lot of what they’ve done for granted,” Tim says. “They never realise quite what they know and the insights they can bring to bear.”
So consider how to convey that — “Not in a way that positions you as, ‘Back in the old days, this is how we did it’, but in a way that people say, ‘Oh, I never thought about it that way.'”
Look after yourself
Being unemployed is stressful at any age, but there’s evidence that older workers experience longer periods of unemployment between jobs. Think of Tim’s two-year stint looking for work after he was made redundant the first time.
“The stress of being unemployed, of worrying, can lead to mental health issues and depression and the like,” but keeping fit and active can help you cope, he says.
“You don’t have to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger, or go to the gym seven days a week. Just looking after yourself will be important.”
Mr Tickner also went through a two-year period of searching for work, during which he became “desperately unhappy and lost a lot of self-esteem”.
In addition to regular exercise, he credits the support of close family and friends for keeping him going.
“It’s important people talk to their friends if they’re having tough times. If there’s a need to seek professional help, then do that.” Feeling down is perfectly normal, he adds.
Consider a Plan B
If you’re still struggling, it might be time to think about a backup option — though that may be challenging at first.
“My thoughts being a baby boomer were that life was going to be fairly linear and sequential. You went to school, got a job, worked, then retired. Life teaches you that’s not always the case,” Tim says.
“I’d say, don’t define yourself by the work that you’ve always done. What are the other things that interest you? What are the things that are going to give you some sense of meaning as a person?”
Tim says broadening your sense of identity will help you avoid losing confidence and becoming angry.
“That’s what led me to a PhD.”
There are options for people in manual work too.
“A number of ex-trades people have ended up in retail,” Mr Tickner says.
“For example, there are a lot of older people who work at Bunnings. They have transferable skills gained over a life time in a particular trade or industry, and now they’re using those to help people gain expertise in the shop.”
For anyone reinventing themselves, Mr Tickner has these words of encouragement:
“Take heart and give it a go, because you might be surprised by the richness of life experiences that might unfold for you.”
Coming full circle
Tim sees the irony of being a former HR executive who was edged out of work because of ageist recruiting practises.
Working on his PhD made him realise that he was unwittingly part of the problem he’s now inherited.
“I thought I had been quite innovative [during my time in HR]. What I realised I did was recruited lots of young people, lots of women, lots of people of different ethnic background — but I didn’t recruit many older people.”
Was he ageist himself?
“I was. I didn’t realise it, but I was.”
Part of the problem, he says, is that “sometimes when you’re young, you never realise you’ll get old”.
He’s hopeful his PhD will now put him in a better position to consult organisations on their recruitment strategies.
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