It’s a form of workplace discrimination that has long flown under the radar, but eventually it will catch up to us all.
On any given day, when you open your newspaper, or scroll through your newsfeed, there will be a story about the gender pay gap, or a person who missed out on a job opportunity because of illness or their ethnic background. However, there is another type of unlawful discrimination that is equally as prevalent in our workplaces, and is often overlooked — ageism.
Ageism is one of the most reported types of discriminatory behaviour. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, more than a quarter of Australians aged over 50 have experienced some kind of age discrimination in the last couple of years. It’s an issue that will affect us all, and it has long flown under the radar.
Better healthcare and the need to fund retirement as the cost of living increases, is what’s keeping Australians in the workplace longer. While outdated and inaccurate assumptions like older workers being ‘set in their ways’ and ‘just waiting to retire’ continue to prevail, the retirement age in Australia has been steadily increased with many people thinking about a second or third career in middle age.
Last year, we wrote an article for HRM online on the growing implications and challenges of an ageing workforce. This led us to host a briefing for business leaders and HR personnel with the Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Honourable Dr Kay Patterson AO, along with a panel of experts and leaders in this field. Dr Patterson and our panel discussed age diversity and the strategies that businesses can take to manage the realities of an ageing workforce, and the conversation.
So, what can workplaces do to best manage an ageing workforce and tackle ageism?
According to our experts, they key is to challenge the stereotype that mature-aged workers are set in their ways, resistant to change, and ready to stop working. Instead, employers should focus on creating a culture that caters to the needs of all ages, as well as fostering intergenerational exchanges. This can be achieved by the following:
Employers should think more broadly about flexibility in the workplace and offer flexible working arrangements to older workers. Most workplaces promote flexibility to parents returning from a period of parental leave, or to employees with a disability. However, few workplaces actively promote flexibility for mature-age workers. This is despite the fact that being 55 years or older is one of the circumstances where the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) specifically says that an employee can request flexible work arrangements.
Employers should also develop flexible work opportunities that cater to the needs of older workers who are not yet ready to retire, or have no desire to retire, such as job-share arrangements or phased retirement options. Actively promoting these opportunities to workers can benefit both employers and employees. It can place less pressure on workers to stop working simply because they’ve got to a certain age, and can facilitate a smoother transition to retirement. This could lead to greater productivity, a transfer of business and operational knowledge, and of otherwise highly-skilled and experienced staff.
Have positive conversations about retirement
Employers should strive to create a culture that considers career planning for employees of all ages and doesn’t shy away from discussing plans for the future. Far from the outdated assumption that employees over a certain age are simply waiting to retire, many older workers have no desire to stop working and/or would prefer a phased transition to retirement. However, when organisations do not engage with older workers about their career plans in a meaningful or positive way, this can make transition to retirement a stressful process.
Employers should educate employees on matters relating to retirement by facilitating financial planning and ‘preparing for retirement’ awareness sessions, as well having discussions with employees about their plans for the future earlier (when employees are in their mid-40s). This can make the transition to retirement smoother and less daunting.
Facilitate knowledge transfer and intergenerational relationships
Employers should think seriously about the practicalities of working in multigenerational teams, and put in place strategies to both deal with potential intergenerational conflicts, and facilitate knowledge transfer between generations that are working together.
One of the biggest issues resulting from the absence of older workers is the loss of their knowledge and skills when they leave the workforce. Given this, employers should use older workers as mentors to capitalise on their experience and organisational knowledge. By implementing mentoring programs, and ensuring, as far as possible, that different age groups within teams interact, employers can also prevent intergenerational conflict and dispel negative perceptions about older or younger workers.
Thinking seriously about tackling ageism in the workplace is imperative, not only for Australia’s rapidly increasing ageing workforce, but also for our future selves as none of us are getting any younger.
This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety Partner Aaron Goonrey and Lawyer Jenni Mandel. It was first published in HRM Online on 8 March 2019. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.
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