Time to save experience from the scrap heap

It was the mention of his grandson that killed the job interview for Richard. The 65-year old had just been given the signal the job was ‘in the bag’ and was asked when he could start with a gas drilling company and whether a fly in-fly out work arrangement would be a problem.

When Richard replied he was fine with that, because he only had his wife and 16-year-old grandson left at home, the interview suddenly ended.

" Discrimination… contributes to higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher staff turnover and increased recruitment costs."
Fiona Smith, Freelance journalist

“To my astonishment, the interviewer said ‘Oh, I didn't think you were that old’ and got up, left the table and said no more,” Richard says. “I was left sitting there with another manager of the company who said ‘Sorry, that's it then’. Interview was over.”

Sadly, the only thing unusual in that story was the bias was overt. Mostly, people are fed a whole lot of other excuses, like “we are looking for someone with fresh ideas”.

More than one-quarter of people over 55 say they have recently experienced discrimination in the workplace, according the Australian Human Rights Commission. One-third of those episodes of discrimination occurred when applying for a job.

This is, of course, a matter of great unfairness for mature-aged people who find themselves in the job market, but ignoring the value of their experience is also very costly for the Australian economy.

Harnessing the power of that workforce could deliver economic gains of up to $78 billion, according to a report by PwC - the Golden Age Index.

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It may be a huge problem, but age discrimination also appears intractable. Many employers have made commendable efforts to hire more women at senior levels and people of different cultural backgrounds in recent years, but very few specifically target over 50s as a valuable pool of new talent.

Their contribution is generally to retain the mature-aged workers they already have, rather than to go out to employ some more.

As a result, the average duration of unemployment for mature-age people is 68 weeks, compared with 30 weeks for 15 to 24 year olds and 49 weeks for 25 to 54 year olds.

PwC Global Partner, People and Organisation, Jon Williams, says while governments and employers have acted to remove discrimination and make it unlawful, little has been done about jobs and training to allow older people to return to the workforce.

The few organisations with positive hiring programs in place include hardware chain Bunnings which has made its recruitment of former ‘tradies”’ as floor staff a competitive strength. Around 25 per cent of its workforce is reportedly over 50 years of age.

AccorHotels has a five-day work experience program for people aged 50 and older to help provide a pathway to employment. The tourism company was looking for people with maturity and customer service skills.

PwC’s Williams says a benefit of mature age workers is that they are often working for different reasons to their younger colleagues.

“They are no longer on the make. They are no longer fighting to make their way up the greasy pole, they are at a different place. That adds an amazing diversity and richness to the workplace that you don’t get if everyone is the same,” he says.


Outgoing Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says when it comes to workplace discrimination against older people and people with a disability, the scale of the problem is “huge”.

“Things will not change by themselves, but change is not beyond us,” Ryan says. “I am optimistic that with the right Government policies and communications exercises negative attitudes can be replaced by positive ones.”

Ryan launched the Willing To Work report in May as a national inquiry into employment discrimination. She will be succeeded by psychologist Dr Kay Patterson when her term ends in August.

The Willing To Work report recommended establishing a Minister for Longevity, developing national action plans, expanding the role of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to become the Workplace Gender Equality and Diversity Agency, introducing national education campaigns and adopting targets for employment and retention of older people and people with disability in the public service.

Ryan says discrimination is costly because it contributes to higher absenteeism, lower productivity, higher staff turnover and increased recruitment costs, as well as lost business opportunities as a result of abandoning experience, skills and corporate knowledge.

One of the conundrums of age discrimination is that it occurs in workplaces, where those at the top of the organisations are (mostly) men and usually aged over 50. Ryan says they countenance bias against their own age group because they see themselves as “a breed apart”.

“They should be more aware - and I don’t think they are aware,” she says. “[Those] who have been very successful in the corporate sector do see themselves as a very special, fabulous group of people and not like everyone else.”

They may not want to identify with that older age group: “They not collectivists usually, they are highly individualistic”.


One of the common excuses for not hiring older people is their perceived discomfort with new technology, however, a new study by Dropbox debunks this as a myth.

The survey finds information workers in the over-55 age group use more tech devices than the total average and they report fewer tech-related problems and far lower levels of tech-induced stress than Generation X and Generation Y age workers. 

The main differences between people in the survey were not based on their age, sector or seniority but had much more to do with tech usage and working style. Only 17 per cent of people aged 55 and older reported problems with technology, compared with 33 per cent of 18 to 35s.

Despite this, 45 per cent of respondents still believe older colleagues are slower to adopt new technology, with 57 per cent of 18 to 35 year olds holding this view. 

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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