In the movie Intern, Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) takes on a job as a a senior intern at an online fashion site.

In the movie Intern, Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) takes on a job as a a senior intern at an online fashion site. Photo: Supplied

Breaking through the glass ceiling is relatively easy. I did it almost 20 years ago.                                                                                                                But no one told me about the glass trapdoor – that was the shock nothing in my                                                                                                             stellar career had prepared me for. At the age of 50 I left a job for family reasons                                                                                                                for a short while, but I faced hurdles when I tried to return to the workforce.                                                                                                                     My corporate stiletto had slipped straight through the glass trapdoor.                                                                                                                                       I simply hadn’t realised that in the modern workplace, 50 is considered old.

This is not a unique story. The tentacles of age discrimination reach into every                                                                                                                 facet of Australian society and nothing we are now doing is working. The government                                                                                               bribing companies to take on older workers by paying $10,000 an older employee has                                                                                                   been a dismal failure. Fewer than 3000 people are involved in a scheme that hoped to attract 32,000.

The government’s intergenerational report makes it clear that older workers must work longer.                                                                                       It is a financial imperative, as it will boost productivity. An extra 3 per cent participation rate in                                                                            workers over 55 is estimated to account for a $33 billion boost to Australia’s gross domestic product.

As an added incentive for older people to continue to work the pension age will go up.                                                                                                  From July 2025, the qualifying age to receive the age pension will continue to increase from                                                                                            67 years, by six months every two years, until it reaches 70 years in July 2035.

The fatal flaw in this grand strategy is that employers are reducing older workers from their                                                                               workforce at alarming rates. Once older workers have left a job, it becomes difficult to re-enter                                                                                      the workforce. If they do, they are often underemployed and unable to maintain their previous standard of living.

To add to the problem the definition of an older worker is getting younger. It appears to be going down in                                                                five-yearly increments. Forget 65 think 50 or even 45. For redundancy purposes if an employee is 45, they                                                                are defined as an older worker. They receive small extra payments for the privilege. They then enter the                                                                 world of unemployment where it takes an average of 72 weeks for them to re-enter the workforce in some capacity.

Workers are becoming so fearful of being classified as old they are spending big dollars on keeping                                                                 themselves looking younger. Research shows that one of the primary reasons women go under the                                                                    surgeon’s knife is to ensure employability in the workforce. As an executive coach and facilitator,                                                                        working in corporate Australia, I am aware of the level of fear. That fear is not only confined                                                                                             to women it just starts earlier for them.

The government has acknowledged employment discrimination may derail its plans. An inquiry, to be                                                                     released in July, has been established to identify what is required to keep older people in the workforce.                                                                  Let’s hope it packs a punch because it will have to be taken seriously if the government wants to deliver                                                                       on any number of economic outcomes.

I agree with Susan Ryan, the Age Discrimination Commissioner, that age discrimination is a social                                                                             and economic issue affecting a growing cohort of men and women. It caught government by surprise.

It is important to dispel the myths: Australians over the age of 50 do want to work. The issue is they                                                                         often cannot get a job after their employment has been terminated. The new jobs they are offered are                                                                       often casual or jobs that no one else wants.

Financial hardship is becoming an inevitable reality for this group of older Australians and it’s                                                                            affecting their health. Worryingly men, who have lost employment between 45 and 65, are one                                                                                       of the largest growing groups of people with mental health issues.

Staggeringly, there are more people over 50 on work-for-the-dole schemes than unemployed                                                                                   people below 22. Even more shocking there are now 210,000 Australians over the age of 50                                                                                         who are living off unemployment benefits. Serious intervention is required if for no other                                                                                        reason than self-interest. No amount of bribery, no amount of Botox, no amount of surgery                                                                                               is going to mask this problem any time soon.

It’s easy for the the government to get the data, change pensions policies and set up an inquiry.                                                                                       It is much more difficult to change a culture. This is challenging in Australia, as ageism in the                                                                                workforce is as rampant as it is silent. Silence can no longer be accepted.

It’s time for governments, employers and Australians to act. Unlike the suffragettes, or powerful images                                                                       of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school in America, there has been no similar                                                           campaign or strong movement for the greying masses for anything to change.

Given the boost to profits, productivity and reduction on the burden of the aged pension, it is hard                                                                                 to understand why corporate Australia, state and federal governments and the Productivity Commission                                                                     are not rallying in the streets to make this happen.

Jenny Brice is an executive coach and a former HR director for several large Australian companies.