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.