A tight jobs market could be a boon for older job seekers, but the often-overlooked demographic still faces a fight against deliberate and subconscious bias.
Older workers are being welcomed back amid the ongoing labour shortage. Photo: Getty
The job hunt can be tough for anyone, but older Australians are often eliminated early on.
Indeed talent strategy adviser Lauren Anderson said while there has been an uptick in older Australians looking for work based on recent economic challenges, the population in general is working longer.
“After all, 55 today looks different to 55 a couple of decades ago,” she said.
Some organisations, such as Bunnings, are “leading the way” in cultivating a diverse workforce.
But others are dragging their feet; Ms Anderson said by doing so, they’re depriving their younger workers of mentors, and representation for their older customers or clients.
Obstacles for older job seekers
With the increasing economic pressures on everything from housing to food, older Australians looking to stay employed or get back in the game are at a significant disadvantage.
A 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission report found people aged 55 years and over made up about a quarter of the national population, but only 16 per cent of the total workforce.
The report also found older people face longer periods of unemployment, with the average duration of unemployment for mature-age people sitting at 68 weeks, compared to 30 weeks for 15 to 24-year-olds and 49 weeks for 25 to 54-year-olds.
The age at which an employee would be considered an older worker varies between industries, although a 2021 Australian HR Institute report found the majority of HR leaders, academics and business leaders surveyed classified an ‘older worker’ as someone aged between 61 and 65.
Older workers can be a valuable resource for organisations. Photo: Getty
High salary expectations and a lack of technological skills were among the top reasons behind a reluctance to take on older workers in the report, but experts told TND knowledge and experience should trump everything else.
Fiona Macdonald, industrial and social policy director at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, said presumptions that older workers won’t have, or be able to pick up, relevant skills, or are more prone to injury, are stereotypes that contribute to ageism.
“There are lots of benefits to hiring older workers,” Dr Macdonald said.
“Older workers can often mentor younger workers; older workers will have a lot of knowledge that’s very difficult to transfer into a younger workforce if you don’t have that diversity.”
Dr Macdonald said the onus is on employers to improve their recruitment practices and open their minds to a more diverse talent pool, including in regards to age.
But older workers can help matters by proactively networking, and thinking “creatively” about what kind of jobs to apply for.
Information such as university graduation dates, or dates in general, on a resume can be a dead giveaway to age.
But you don’t have to include them on a resume if you’re concerned about making it through the first stage of an application process, Ms Anderson said, as long you’re also not misrepresenting yourself or your age.
Some industries tend to employ a younger demographic, but they could be missing out on a large talent pool. Photo: Getty
She said upskilling by completing courses to keep skills and knowledge up to date could also be beneficial, as can getting a trusted friend to look over your resume and make sure you’re not selling yourself short.
And if you feel confident and comfortable doing so, feel free to bring up your age during a job interview to address any potential misgivings a potential employer might have.
“When the labour market’s tight, employers are … willing to think a bit more creatively about diversity in the workforce,” she said.
“The other thing [is that] there has been much more focus on flexibility at work in recent times, and I think that can be really important for some older workers who often have other responsibilities [and] may be, depending on their age, wanting to transition out of full-time work.”
Employers are becoming less ageist, changing their view of what age is considered old and increasingly recognising that mature workers are often more reliable, committed and able to cope with stress.
This is reflected in research by the Australian HR Institute and Australian Human Rights Commission, which found many organisations in 2023 defined “older” employees as 61-65 years of age, compared with 50-55 years of age in 2021.
The institute’s fifth survey on attitudes to age among employers – to which 297 HR professionals replied – found fewer employers have an age limit for candidates.
When its regular surveys began in 2014, more than half of employers (52 per cent) had a cut-off age, but only 18 per cent had age limits this year.
But age-related bias continues to exist about older and younger workers, including views that younger workers are less resilient and older workers are not as good with technology.
Only one quarter of employers were open to hiring workers aged over 65 “to a large extent”, while one in six organisations (18 per cent) said they would exclude candidates aged 65 or over from recruitment entirely, despite the fact two-thirds of the HR professionals said they were having difficulty finding staff.
The report, out on Monday, noted that there were 439,000 vacancies in the Australian economy in February 2023 – nearly double the pre-pandemic figure.
Professor Marian Baird, head of the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney, said it was positive to see some changing attitudes from employers on age. “However, it’s very disappointing to still see discrimination occurring.”
“Over-50-women’s employment is the most significant growth in Australia’s labour force. This is also positive, but only if they are treated well and can find good quality, flexible work that recognises all the care demands many have,” she said.
2GB host Ben Fordham has cheekily suggested setting up a GoFundMe page for author Jane Caro and her husband after ageism comments.
Gerwyn Davies, research and policy specialist at the HR Institute, said only four per cent of the growth in employment is among workers aged 55 and above, but they make up 20 per cent of the workforce.
“They have not kept pace with other age groups [in the past year]. This is a massive shift,” he said.
The slowdown was possibly partly because employers were trying to get workers back into offices, and mature workers preferred flexibility.
“Increasing longevity is forcing people to recognise they need to work for longer, and we are seeing growing willingness of employers to take on older staff,” Davies said.
“The perception of what constitutes an older worker has risen, which is good news from the point of view of both employers and employees.”
The survey found the majority of employers think older workers are stronger on loyalty, attendance, durability and “awareness”, while younger workers had better “physical capability, ambition and proficiency in using technology”.
“Many respondents surveyed report no difference between older and younger workers in terms of job performance, concentration, ability to adapt to change, energy levels and creativity,” it noted.
As longer life means Australians need more savings, Age Discrimination Commissioner, Kay Patterson, said it was positive that 73 per cent of employers had employed older workers in the past year.
Changes to working arrangements since the pandemic, when remote working became common, helped employers realise older workers had similar skill levels to younger peers.
“We need to debunk the myths ageism perpetuates and encourage employment across ages: sometimes employers are discriminating against younger people who have ‘not got enough experience’, so it’s not just going one way,” said Patterson, a former senator.
Lyn Tuit, a marketing and communications executive and chair of Alliance Francaise de Sydney, said she had not experienced ageism in the Australian workplace, and that the combination of younger and older people in teams benefits both groups, and their employer.
“One of the joys of working with a younger team is both parties bring something,” said Tuit, who describes her life-stage as at the beginning of her 70s.
“What an employer gets is someone who’s likely to stay, is not on the ladder upwards, so has longevity [at that workplace], and who will be able to mentor younger staff … and provide an alternative point of view.”
A key to maintaining workplace currency is embracing new technology, she said, and staying “up to or nearly up to” levels of proficiency younger workers have.
That discrimination against hiring older workers continues at nearly one in five organisations was “inexplicable” in the face of staff shortages, said Sarah McCann-Bartlett, Australian HR Institute chief executive.
She said it “does not match up with the reality” in workplaces that skills and experience of different age groups complement each other, benefiting the organisation.
“The research shows the perception of [HR] respondents is that older and younger workers have different skill sets, and that creates a more diverse workforce and provides the ability for older workers mentoring younger workers and vice versa,” she said.
The workforce participation rate of people aged 55 to 64 was 69.4 per cent this year, compared with 45 per cent in 1995.
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.
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.
Older Australians could be the beneficiaries of a plan to address a shortage of workers.
Federal opposition leader Peter Dutton has called on the government to double the amount that age pensioners can earn before their pension payments are affected.
Speaking with reporters, Mr Dutton said that lifting the Work Bonus amount at which pensioners begin to lose benefits from $300 to $600 could help alleviate the labour shortage facing businesses.
Currently, those receiving the Age Pension can earn up to $180 per fortnight for singles, and up to $320 per fortnight for couples, on top of the Work Bonus amount, before their pension payments are reduced.
“This is about those who want to work and do an extra day or two … and for it not to affect their pension,” Mr Dutton said.
“I really think it’s a policy that the Albanese government should pick up because the economy demands it now.”
Read: Retail body pressures government on Age Pension work rules
Mr Dutton said Treasury had costed the plan at around $112 million annually, and it would be reviewed each year if implemented.
In a rare show of potential bipartisanship, new Treasurer Jim Chalmers told the ABC’s Insiders program that his government was open to the idea of easing the rules, but he had concerns about the cost of the program.
“When it comes to this issue, I’ve had good, productive conversations with National Seniors and others about whether or not we can do something here,” he said.
“The truth is, in a budget which has got that trillion dollars in debt, we’ve got to weigh up all of these ideas and work out where we can get the best bang for buck.
“Because even an idea like this, which appears to be relatively modest, it still comes with a relatively hefty price tag.”
Mr Chalmers said the idea would be on the agenda at Labor’s ‘jobs summit’, set to be held sometime before the October Budget.
Business groups applaud the plan. Innes Willox, chief executive of national employer association the Ai Group, says encouraging older Australians back to work will bring decades of experience back to the economy.
“Tens of thousands of Australians now receiving a pension can potentially make a huge contribution to the workforce with their skills, experience and mentoring,” he says.
“Our policy settings need to move with the times and allowing older Australians to work more is one way of easing the labour pressures on business.”
Employers may say they support older workers returning to work, but are businesses willing to hire them?
EveryAGE Counts campaign director Dr Marlene Krasovitsky welcomes initiatives to break down structural barriers to older people working, but says we also need to break down attitudinal barriers given the prevalence of ageism among employers.
“Recent research by the Australian HR Institute revealed 47 per cent of Australian businesses say they are reluctant to recruit workers ‘over a certain age’,” says Dr Krasovitsky.
“For more than two-thirds of the group admitting to ageism, that ‘certain age’ was over 50. So the chances of an over-65 getting a fair go in a job interview is extremely slight.
“If we want to harness the unquestionable value of over-65s in the workforce, we need to look ageism squarely in the face, admit that it’s a problem, and work hard to break it down.
Are older workers getting a ‘fair go’? No, and that must change, study finds.
New research into the treatment of older workers shows that many mature-age employees report experiencing discrimination in the workforce due to their age, and believe they are not receiving the same opportunities provided to other workers.
The research found there are more instances of older employees being laid off compared to their younger colleagues, while a stigma remains around their competency with technology and openness to change. Older women in non-managerial roles, working part-time or on a casual basis are more likely to report experiences of aged-based discrimination.
The research is part of a joint initiative by the Council on the Ageing (COTA) NSW and Challenger and is aimed at addressing the underemployment of people over 50. Importantly, the research considers the issue from the perspective of both Australian employers and employees.
“Australia’s mature-aged workforce is skilled and able – and older people are healthier than at any other time in history,” said Meagan Lawson, chief executive officer of COTA NSW. “But due to stigma and discrimination, there are fewer employment opportunities for people aged over 50.”
Key takeaways from the research include:
Many employers are unaware of age discrimination in the workforce but are willing to do something about it once it has been identified.
Businesses need support to understand how they are tracking, and the steps they can take to improve employment of mature workers.
Older workers believe a change in attitude by employers would help them financially and emotionally.
There’s a great diversity within mature-aged workers.
Ageing of the workforce is a critical challenge for the economy. In 1976, there were seven working people for every non-working person. In 2016, that had fallen to four to one, and according to the NSW Intergenerational Report, it will be two to one by 2056.
The benefits to individuals and the community go well beyond finance. Workforce participation is linked to better health outcomes and other positive well being indicators. But the research shows many mature age workers feel they don’t get a fair go, with excuses ranging from over-qualification and younger managers feeling threatened, to poor cultural fit and being bad for the corporate image.
“There is significant value to individuals, the community and the economy in supporting older people to work as long as they wish,” said Challenger chief executive officer Richard Howes. “Increasing workforce participation for older Australians will not only help improve overall well being but also contributes to financial security for a better retirement.”
Half the employers surveyed for the research believed they were doing enough to support older workers. While most employers have general workplace bullying, discrimination and equal opportunities polices in place, only a minority had specific policies that covered age discrimination in detail.
“Older workers should be more valued for the expertise, skills and experience they bring to the workplace, and building awareness around the issue of age discrimination with employers and employees of all ages is a key opportunity,” Ms Lawson said.
COTA NSW and Challenger are developing a toolkit to help employers implement age-friendly practices. It includes improved education for managers to address unconscious bias and improve hiring practices, as well as programs to help promote flexible working arrangements and anti-age discrimination policies. The toolkit will be available later in the year and will include initiatives to forge stronger connections between workers of all ages within an organisation and how to better train mature-age jobseekers.
“While not all older workers are the same, some uniform initial steps should be taken to address the issue of age bias,” Ms Lawson said. “There needs to be better education and training, more rigorous internal policies and structures, greater cross pollination among workers, and better access to job opportunities for older workers.”
The share of the workforce aged 55 or over may be increasing, but that doesn’t mean older Australians are not facing significant barriers and discrimination.
A new national survey has revealed that ageism is on the rise in Australia, with 37 per cent of over-50s now reporting having experienced ageism, which was up from 33 per cent in 2018.
The Council on the Ageing’s (COTA) State of the Older Nation report also revealed 26 per cent of respondents had experienced employment-related discrimination since turning 50 – up from 22 per cent in 2018 when the last survey was conducted.
However, older Australian advocacy group EveryAGE Counts believes the figures from the COTA study show that ageism is becoming a “national crisis”.
EveryAGE Counts campaign director Marlene Krasovitsky said these worrying trends show that ageism is no longer an issue that can be ignored.
“Too many are accustomed to laughing off incidents of ageism as relatively trivial, but we know it’s doing real damage to millions of Australian lives,” Ms Krasovitsky said.
“The fact that 37 per cent of Australians over 50 have been discriminated against should be considered a national crisis. And to see ageism on the rise since 2018 is particularly alarming.
“Most Australians are living longer, healthier lives. Yet ageist attitudes and practices continue to exclude, diminish and marginalise older people. Workforce discrimination, for example, hurts not just older Australians, but the entire community and our economy.”
Ms Krasovitsky said until people started recognising the problem, ageism would continue to rise and that could have a serious impact on people’s health.
“Changing social norms is never easy, but it starts with acknowledging the problem as serious,” Ms Krasovitsky said. “We need to stop shrugging off incidents of ageism and start calling them out.
“The World Health Organization recently found older people who hold negative views about their own ageing will live 7.5 years less, on average, than those with positive attitudes.
“How can you not develop negative attitudes when over a third of Australians over 50 are being discriminated against, and the rest of us are forced to see and hear ageist views on a daily basis?”
While the State of the Older Nation report had some alarming figures on age-based discrimination, it also showed that only 49 per cent of those aged 65 had retired, which was down significantly from 2018 when 60 per cent had retired.
Also, the proportion of people aged 65 to 69 who said they wanted more paid work has doubled from 2018 (15 per cent to 31 per cent)
Those figures may reflect that the Age Pension eligibility age has also changed in that time, but does also demonstrate that older Australians are staying in the workforce longer, but are not getting as much work as they want or need.
According to the survey, 25 per cent of those who are still working do not think that they will ever retire, which was up slightly from 24 per cent in 2018.
It is hard to know exactly how many older Australians plan on returning to work.
As Australia’s vaccination rate heads towards meeting important targets, economists are no clearer on how the shockwaves caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will play out in the months to come.
There are fears that as business slowly starts to pick up around the country, growth will be slowed by a significant labour shortage, with many older workers, who may have lost work, choosing not to return to the workforce.
A CommSec Economic Insight analysing detailed labour force data has found that lockdowns in NSW and Victoria have scrambled the figures, but appear to point to many older Australians not returning to the workforce.
The report explains that prior to the pandemic, one of the major reasons that Aussies were not employed or looking for jobs was that they had retired and were out of the job market.
In April 2018, a record 38.7 per cent of people aged 65 and over said that they were ‘permanently not intending to work’, which was a significant increase from the 33 per cent that answered that way in September 2014.
Prior to COVID-19, the figures showed a reassessment, with the proportion of those not in the workforce because they were retired falling from 38.7 per cent to a three-year low of 35.3 per cent in July 2019.
The effect of COVID hitting shortly after this change has made it impossible to determine if this was the start of a trend, the CommSec economists explain.
That is because more people left the job market over lockdown periods because they were not employed but were not looking for work because they were likely to return to their employer when businesses reopened.
That meant that the proportion of those not in the workforce because they were retired hit a record 39.9 per cent of the total in June 2021 and this has since fallen to a low of 36.4 per cent in September 2021.
CommSec’s chief economist, Craig James, explains that working out why people are not in the job market will be important in the coming months.
“If more people are electing to retire, then there are fewer potential workers to fill positions,” Mr James said. “That may mean the job market tightens more than generally expected, putting upward pressure on wages and prices. And that is especially the case if foreign borders stay closed.
“Older Aussies may see greater health risks in being in the job market in the COVID era. And still others may elect to live large given the experience of the past 18 months.
“At this stage data still shows that older Aussies are active in the job market with record participation levels. However, peak levels may not be far away.”
Mr Elliott explained that ANZ had found older workers more effective in customer service roles and better able to empathise with customers in difficulty due to more life experience than younger workers.
In November last year, a research discussion paper commissioned by Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) said that the proportion of workers over 65 would settle at around 28 to 33 per cent and that over-65s would never outnumber younger adults.
New research of Australia’s older workers has found that experiences of age discrimination in the workplace have almost doubled in the last five years.
According to the Australian Seniors Series: Ageing in the Workforce 2021 report, one in five workers (20.7%) aged over 50 has encountered age discrimination in the workplace – twice as many compared to 2016 (9.6%). Just over 40% say they have felt patronised in the workplace because of their age.
Despite the prevalence of ageism, more than three quarters of Australians aged over 50 want to keep working indefinitely and almost 90% of retirees plan to re-enter the workforce. Finance was identified as the biggest reason, followed by missing their job, boredom and a lack of social connection.
Speaking at a recent virtual roundtable, attended by HRD, industry experts discussed the new findings, sharing common misconceptions and ways to address ageism in the workplace. Tai Mavins, social research expert and consulting partner at Mymavins, said the events of the past 18 months have made things even more difficult for older workers.
“Over one in two seniors feel that Covid has made it harder to get work, and close to one in five feel that recent events have impacted their retirement plans, so it’s bringing a lot of uncertainty into their working life,” Mavins said. “In response to this, we actually see that one in four seniors admit to trying to make themselves look younger in the workplace or when they’re applying for jobs. That includes things from dying their hair, wearing the latest fashion, getting the latest haircut and makeup styles.”
Older workers are also becoming increasingly proactive at upskilling to keep up with advancing industry trends, with many branching out into new career paths.
“We found that close to three in five seniors plan to or already have reskilled or sought further training to improve their prospects since turning 50,” Mavins said. “What’s probably most interesting about that is as many as half of those people who are looking to reskill have done that in new areas, so they’re really expanding their horizons and moving beyond past roles.”
The research shows that the appetite to work and to continue learning is there. Like many nations, Australia has an ageing population, and the rising cost of living means people are working till later in life. So how do HR leaders address the causes of age discrimination and foster a truly inclusive workplace?
Humphrey Armstrong, an organisational psychologist at Lifelong Learning, said much of the problem stems back to commonly held misconceptions, like older employees costing more, being more difficult to train, or being resistant to change.
“I think one of the fascinating things is that emotional intelligence, or emotional capabilities actually increase with age well into a person’s 70s,” he said. “In terms of resistance to change, I think if older people know why change is needed and how to change they are prepared to jump on board.”
Armstrong pointed out that twice as many start-ups are initiated by over 50s than people in their twenties. Clearly, there is a huge amount of value in the learned knowledge, intuition and life experience of an older worker. But for a workforce to be inclusive of all ages, ageism needs to be more widely talked about, Armstrong said.
“We hear a lot about gender diversity, especially over the last few months, but in fact, age diversity is often ignored. We’ve got to actually bring that in and really reinforce the issue,” Armstrong said. “Research studies show that diversity is an incredible advantage in organisational life, it increases profitability, creativity, enhances governance, and it also enables better problem solving.
“And as mentioned, emotional intelligence can increase with age so there’s this huge resource where older people are, in fact, very valuable and very skilled at handling tricky interpersonal problems and generally they are better able to cope with ambiguity.”
Lisa Sinclair, editor-in-chief at DARE Magazine, said she’d like to see more organisations introducing policies to support women going through menopause and acknowledge the pressures on the “sandwich generation” who may be supporting both elderly parents and older children. There are also simple measures to improve inclusivity during the recruitment process.
“I would love it if companies in general stopped advertising for unicorns, which are these mythical creatures that have 15 different boxes to tick,” she said. “I mean that’s hard enough for any age but I think it could be particularly confronting for the over 50s who might be put off for applying for jobs just because there’s one element they don’t meet.”
It’s a question Tracey Ward has been asking herself a lot lately.
The 56-year-old is a self-employed life coach for women, but has seen her income dry up due to the pandemic.
She’s surviving off JobKeeper payments, but when the subsidy is scrapped in March, Ms Ward is afraid she will “really struggle”.
She knows she could get some sort of work – “there are organisations like Bunnings who hire people of all ages”, she said – but she wants something different for herself and fears the lack of attention from the federal government on her age group could signal the end of her career.
While the government has focused on the high levels of youth unemployment borne out of the pandemic, middle-aged, mid-career workers say they have been forgotten.
The unemployment rate for Australians aged over 40 was 3.8 per cent in January 2020 and grew to 5.2 per cent in July before recovering slightly to 4.7 per cent by October.
Some of those stuck unemployed say they are dumbing down their resumes to appear less threatening to potential new employers; others, like Ms Ward, wish funding could be funnelled into upskilling rather than hiring incentives based on age.
‘If you’re 40-plus and a woman you just don’t get a new job’
Sheena Gulati was told many times in 2020 that she was “overqualified” for a role.
The 43-year-old lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.
Before the pandemic hit, she was working as a part-time contractor in accounting and finance.
Of all the reasons to be rejected from a job, being “too experienced” wasn’t something she expected to hear.
“They want someone who is young because I think they think overqualified people will ask more questions and tell them how to do things better,” Ms Gulati said.
She suspects her qualifications have little to do with it.
“It’s your age they’re talking about,” she said.
Ms Gulati felt the competition within the jobs market ramp up, and said she is surrounded by friends and family in their 40s who are struggling to secure work.
It’s become so tough she’s considering a career change.
“I have been thinking about it, but it would be a fresh start. It’s scary. I have been in this line of work for a really long time, my qualifications are in this so it will be hard starting afresh,” she said.
“If you’re 40-plus and a woman you just don’t get a new job.”
Her mortgage, other household bills and the expense of raising two children is beginning to bite and Ms Gulati says she’s frustrated the government appeared to forget about middle-aged Australians.
“Why does the government want to give more benefits to elderly people over 65 but not us? What do you do between 35 and 50? Where do you go? What do you want us to do?
“I think it’s unjust – your partiality is based on age. Why? I have no idea.”
Need a job? Learn to ask
Career practitioner Lois Keay-Smith has been coaching people looking for a new job for years, and primarily helps people aged 30 to 60.
She said, surprisingly, the pandemic appeared to be the last straw for people looking for a career change.
“It’s highlighted aspects of their work they don’t like. It’s given people some freedom to say, ‘I wasn’t happy anyway and with all these changes I want to go and do what I want to do’,” she said.
Ms Keay-Smith said older workers “definitely” faced challenges, like adapting to a new work environment where competition for jobs was high.
“I find some mature work-seekers fall back on what worked for them last time, but it doesn’t work because there are so many more eyeballs on job ads,” she said.
“But an advantage they have is they have good networks; they’ve been in the workforce and often the work I do is help them activate that network.”
Ms Keay-Smith says one of the best pieces of advice she has is: learn to ask.
“I call it the rise of the returnee – going back to a company you used to work for by tapping into those colleagues you used to work with before,” she said.
“There used to be a stigma around that – you never go back – but that’s changed and both of these things around people are more accepting that things change in organisations quite rapidly.”
Ms Keay-Smith also says she’s heard the ‘overqualified’ response quite a lot when it comes to mature workers.
“[The company’s] main concern is that you are using the job as an entry point,” she said.
“They feel you are not going to stay because it’s not fulfilling and you might get bored.”
Her advice for people who do want to scale down their role is to be honest.
“If you know you are going to get the overqualified response, you do have to address the elephant in the room and say why you are attracted to this role.
“It’s about positioning yourself as a stayer or someone who can contribute a lot in a short space of time.”
Ms Keay-Smith’s top career advice is:
Use your networks.
Get comfortable being on camera. Practise interviews on Zoom with a friend.
Don’t be afraid to go back to a company you used to work for.
Get up to speed with the latest interview techniques.
Older workers want to upskill
While Ms Ward believes an incentive to hire young people is great, she says helping people who are mid-career would have a greater benefit overall.
“Younger people have time to try things and fail and learn from it, but it becomes more scary when you’re older and have a mortgage to pay and have no back-up plan,” she said.
“You’re very conscious of your superannuation for retirement.
“I am very proud to be a woman in my 50s, but I know women who don’t let their hair go grey because if their company finds out how old they are they go in the redundancy pile.”
Just like Ms Gulati, Ms Ward has heard employers say they don’t want to hire qualified, older workers because they are afraid they will “make waves”.
She has friends who have pared back their resumes after being told they are “too experienced” for a role.
“It’s desperate and very real for many especially women; grey-haired men are classed as distinguished and experienced whereas grey-haired women aren’t. We are not revered for our wisdom.”
Ms Ward doesn’t just want to be hired, she wants to upskill to remain relevant in the ever-digitising workplace.
“Everything is going online and into a digital space so fast and some older people are being left behind because there’s no time or money to reskill,” she said.
“I have just spent the past hour trying to work out how I record myself whilst I’m recording a presentation on the Mac, so there’s endless [challenges].”
Sometimes she laughs it off. Other times it’s overwhelming.
Ms Ward said an upskilling program where companies provide pro-bono work for older people to learn digital skills would go a long way, and be much more helpful than just being hired by a company because there’s a monetary incentive.
“I’m not talking about someone from Centrelink showing me how to do it for half an hour on video. I’m talking about someone who is at the head of their game getting a tax incentive to help me step up my business,” she said.
“And then I could employ people so it could be a win if other companies were encouraged to help people like me because I don’t have the funds to do it myself.
“I don’t want a free handbag. I want my business to be really successful. I’d happily be the pilot for it.”
Have you been rejected for a job because you are ‘too qualified’? Does the system discriminate against older Australians?
In the space of five years, Liz Clifford has lost her husband to cancer, her office job and now her home.
At the age of 60 she finds herself struggling to get by on Newstart unemployment benefits.
“Very disappointed with life,” she told 7.30.
“It wasn’t his fault that he got sick and died, but after losing my job I don’t have the income now to support living here — rates to pay and bills to pay.
“I don’t like to say it’s destroyed my life, but it’s certainly torn it apart.”
Ms Clifford is part of a worrying trend. The number of people aged 55-64 on Newstart has risen by more than 55,000 in less than five years.
“It’s been very difficult. It makes you feel quite worthless actually, like you’ve got no purpose in life,” she said.
“I feel a little bit insulted and I feel like I’ve been punished for being unemployed.”
She lives on about $50 a day and has been forced to sell her and her late husband’s dream home because she can no longer keep up with repayments.
‘I’ve got a lot to offer’
Newstart has not increased in real terms for more than two decades, and the Federal Government is resisting calls to lift the payment.
“Electricity’s not cheap, water rates and house rates aren’t cheap,” Ms Clifford said.
“I get my Centrelink payment every fortnight and that just goes straight onto my credit card.
“Because I’ve used the redraw facility on [the mortgage], it’s gone up but I’ve tried to be very careful with that.”
Ms Clifford currently works part-time at a Gold Coast boarding kennel but is planning a move to Ipswich to find a cheaper home and full-time office work.
“I think people probably want someone who’s 35, 40 or something like that or maybe even younger.
“I know I’ve got a lot to offer, I’ve got a lot of skills and I’ve worked for a long time and I’m quite computer literate, but I think people just think, ‘She’ll be wanting to retire in a couple of years’ time, so it’s not worth taking her on’.”
More programs needed for mature age workers
Labour market analyst Professor John Spoehr said the sharp rise in the number of over-55s on Newstart was due to a downturn in traditional industries and a crackdown on eligibility for disability support payments.
“Despite the Australian unemployment rate being relatively low, that masks some other problems in the labour market,” he told 7.30.
“In particular, the difficult circumstances that mature-age workers face, particularly because of the decline in mining and manufacturing.
“People who were skilled in those sectors had to find jobs in very, very different areas of the labour market, predominantly in the services sector where they weren’t well skilled.”
Professor Spoehr said a poor education was hurting some workers in the modern employment landscape.
“Typically, mature-age workers, baby boomers in particular, often require more support than a lot of other workers in the labour market that are struggling,” he said.
“I think there’s a need for an expansion of mature-age employment programs in Australia to support mature age workers through these difficult transitions.”
Living on $40 a day
Phillip Cacciola, 61, has a lifetime of experience on the factory floor.
“My first job [was] cabinet maker, then I got a job at Holden, biscuit factory, steel fabrication,” he told 7.30.
“Then I got a job at Copperpot pate and dip factory. I was there for 10 years.”
He is now unemployed and believes his reading and writing skills and age are stopping him from finding work.
“Everything is on the computer,” he said.
“When you put a job application in you’ve got to put it in the computer. I can’t do that. Simple as that, I just can’t do that.
“If they put me on a forklift and show me what to do I’d probably pick it up after a while. You’ve got to go through the paperwork and safety and stuff.
“I know the safety stuff but you still got to write it down, that’s my biggest problem.”
Mr Cacciola said he had personally sought out courses to improve his reading and writing skills but wanted the Government to help more in this area as well as increase the Newstart payment.
He lives on about $40 a day.
“Sometimes I get cranky when I hear things about the politicians,” he said.
“They’ve got no problems paying the electric bills, they’ve got no problems paying anything.
“If they want to buy something they can get money out of the bank and buy it. I can’t do that.”