At a glance
By Megan Breen
As employers struggle to fill positions, mature-aged job seekers are in a prime position to fill the gap, yet they are often subjected to outdated stereotypes portraying them as slow to learn new skills, unable to fit into workplace culture, or unable to keep up with the latest technological advances.
Dispelling myths relating to mature-aged workers is proving to be challenging, particularly when it comes to the belief that older people in general are not digitally savvy.
Despite the fact that someone in their 50s or 60s has likely been working with computers for most of their career, owns a smartphone and functions quite successfully in the digital world, there is a reluctance to believe that older workers would be able to pick up the latest new software program or platform required to do their job well and keep up with younger colleagues.
Counting the cost of overlooking
According to the World Health Organization, the cost of overlooking older workers is enormous.
In Australia alone, it is estimated that, if 5 per cent more people aged 55 or older were employed, the national economy would benefit by as much as A$48 billion annually.
Fiona Lamb, executive general manager, employment services with MAX Solutions, says that between 2018 and 2021, the company’s cohort of mature-age job seekers increased by 33.8 per cent, to more than 30,000 people.
She points to the company’s recent report, Breaking the Age Barrier, which shows that 30 per cent of employers are reluctant to hire mature-age candidates, while 85 per cent of older job candidates say they perceive reluctance for employers to hire older people.
“We wanted to shed some light on what we thought is an issue, particularly during the pandemic, and highlight what’s been happening with some of our mature candidates. Older workers, that is 50 to 60-year-olds, make up 18 per cent of our population, but 28 per cent of our candidates. It is disproportionate,” says Lamb.
According to the Australian Government’s 2021 Intergenerational Report, 23 per cent of the population is projected to be aged over 65 by 2060-2061, a rise of approximately 7 per cent from 2021.
This means Australia’s ageing population will reduce our national labour force, contributing to projections for slower growth of our GDP at 2.6 per cent per annum for the next 40 years, compared with 3 per cent for the past four decades.
“The average length of time for someone to get back into the workforce when they are over 50 can be up to two years. I think the economic impact of this is huge. If we have a whole lot of older workers who still have many years left but are out of work, they will be unable to pay their mortgage, and they may be supporting a multi-generational household with children and older family members.
“This will also place greater strain on the wider community, if we have people needing to access their savings or superannuation, which will impact their retirement funds, leading to more people relying on benefits,” says Lamb.
The cost is more than just economic, say Ian Yates, CEO of Councils on the Ageing (COTA) Australia.
“Ageism has a whole variety of implications. Obviously, for individuals it has a negative impact if it is expressed through people applying for jobs and not getting any replies to their applications.
“For others, they may get an interview, but as soon as they walk in the door, they can tell from the body language they are not going to get the job once the interviewers can see that person is older.
“Those things can have really deleterious effects on the individual, especially when this happens at a later stage of your working life, when actually you should be financially preparing for your post-working life,” says Yates.
Changing minds about older workers
Lamb says there are plenty of misconceptions about older workers in Australia that need to be challenged.
The MAX Solutions’ report highlights that employers who do take a chance on older recruits agree they are more adept at a range of vital workplace skills compared with younger workers, including dispute resolution, mediation and managing others.
“Employers should look at the whole picture and understand that, while some people might take longer to learn a new system, they might be quicker to pick up other things, because they have a higher emotional IQ, or bring a higher level of experience and level headedness,” says Lamb.
For Roxanne Calder, founder and managing director of recruitment agency EST10 Recruitment and author of Employable: 7 Attributes to Assure Your Working Future, the negative attitudes about age actually go both ways.
“Sometimes people in this demographic who are job seekers do themselves a disservice, because they carry ‘baggage’ into the interview. They take on the persona that they are older, or not as quick as younger people.
“I’ve met and interviewed so many people who are in this situation – lacking self-confidence, letting the bias and prejudice of others affect their demeanour.
“Unfortunately, it can be perceived as negativity and then be self-fulfilling. Self-awareness around this is really important,” says Calder.
A problem without borders
Prejudiced attitudes towards older workers are not just an Australian problem. The World Health Organization has recently described it as “an insidious scourge on society”, calling for a global awareness campaign to combat its negative effects.
For Hong Kong-based recruiter Louisa Yeung FCPA, CEO of KOS International, there is clear evidence of ageism playing out in the way employers recruit staff. While the applicant’s preferred age is not specifically listed, it may be indicated in other ways.
“Ageism in general is a ‘taboo’ among employers in Hong Kong. They will list their preferred profile or requirements in the job descriptions and when they get to age, they will use a total number of years of experience to indicate their preferred age group.
“For labourers, employers in Hong Kong are very open and direct in specifying their needs and requirements. In reality, with the shortage of labour in Hong Kong, employers will need to compromise and accept candidates at 50-plus,” says Yeung.
The economic consequences of such selective hiring will play out in time, she says. Younger people have a different definition of career to those born before 1990.
“As such, if employers insist on using age in hiring, in time they will be facing a shortage of talent to carry out specific functions or job roles.”
About six years ago, ageism was not on Hunter Leonard’s radar. As a successful business owner, he was in the process of expanding and was on the lookout for potential collaborators.
A mentor asked Leonard, founder of Silver & Wise, whether ageism was an issue he was passionate about. It hadn’t been previously, but the more he looked into it, the more it became apparent that ageism was holding some people back.
“I’ve never really experienced it myself, but as I started asking the question, I found people were saying to me, ‘He hasn’t been able to get a job for two years. And she hasn’t been able to get work after a long and varied career’,” Leonard says.
“The more I dug into it, the more I realised that there really was a significant issue.”
This led Leonard to found Silver & Wise, an organisation helping government, companies and individuals embrace a more mature world at work.
“We’re talking about people in their 50s and 60s who are the healthiest generation of that age we’ve ever seen. They are active, smart, engaged and productive, so it does make sense that companies, whether that’s a small business with 10 employees or a big business with 10,000 employees, should be thinking about how they can become an age-friendly and a multi-generational workforce,” says Leonard.
Diversity is the answer
Organisational research tells us that workforces that are diverse in a range of experiences, including age, are generally more productive and more proactive, says Yates. While attention with regards to diversity has been focused on gender, race and disability, age discrimination has been overlooked, he adds.
“COTA advocates for a package of measures. We need a public awareness campaign, we need the government incentives that are offered for employment to be more widely promoted, and we need to reform the age discrimination laws, so that they recognise the systemic nature of age discrimination. We also need more proactive retraining opportunities for mature-age unemployed people.”
Taking a good look at your client base can also be beneficial, adds Calder.
“There are certain brands of retailers that have cleverly matched the people that work there with their customer base. The same could go for an accounting firm. If you have older staff who are knowledgeable and experienced, then your clients are going to appreciate that.”
Leonard adds, “It’s everybody’s problem. We are all going to get older, so clearly this is an issue we all need to pay attention to.
“Accountants and financial advisers are such a valuable part of our community. They are a trusted adviser of business owners, small and large, so they can have a voice to speak out against that. They have a lot of potential to encourage a more positive attitude towards mature-age workers and job seekers.”