Career

How to overcome ageism in the workplace

Finding work over the age of 50 is proving to be a very difficult challenge in Australia. So what are you to do?

Lisa Wilkinson The weekly photoshoot

IF you've spent your life honing your skills and qualifications, unemployment and the difficulties in finding work can come as a rude shock. However, it's a reality facing thousands of older Australians. According to statistics from Centrelink, there are 140,000 unemployed Australians aged between 50-64 on the Newstart allowance – because they're simply unable to find a job.

When you consider that one in three of us will be living to 100 in years to come, there needs to be more acceptance for older job-seekers in the workplace, says Dr Jennifer Neilson from Southern Cross University's School of Law and Justice.

"There's definitely a stigma," she says. "Many mature age people seeking work have reported to me that they've been told they're over-qualified – a term I think is sometimes used as a smokescreen to avoid coming out and saying, 'well, you're just too old for us'.

"Stereotypes and perceptions about older workers have also been detected in a number of studies and focus groups conducted with employers by the Commissioner for Age Discrimination."

TV presenter, Lisa Wilkinson does not think age should be frowned upon in the slightest. In fact, she states it as an attribute that should be acknowledged favourably in the workforce.

“I think one of the reasons I was offered the Today job was my age," she told Body & Soul. "People want that knowledge and experience that comes with it. My age helps to make me the best I can be.”

She adds: “Getting older is so much better than the alternative [of not being around at all],” she quips. “Longevity is a good thing.”

Your rights as an older worker

According to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Australia, a whopping 68 per cent of all age discrimination complaints made are about employment.

So, what are your rights when you're facing an interviewer? How do you know you're being discriminated against? Firstly, says Nielson, keep an eye out for questions that try to flush out your age or make it an issue.

"Also, comments like, 'well, you probably don't know how to do this sort of thing' or 'you probably haven't had this training or know how to use this technology,' impose stereotypes on older people," says Neilson, noting that such assumptions can impact older employees currently in work, too.

Attitudes like these can't be used to make decisions about your rights or the conditions of your employment. "You should have equal access to training, to promotional opportunities, to pursuing other benefits like incentives and bonus payments.

"Also, your age is not a basis for termination of employment. You can't make somebody retire just because of their age."

Incentives and education

There's no doubt that our aging population is going to create a significant policy imperative on the government – and already we're seeing incentive schemes such as Experience+, a federal government initiative offering employers $1000 job bonuses for employing eligible, mature age workers.

"These incentive schemes are a step in the right direction," says Neilson, "but employers will react differently – some may not be genuinely committed, taking the bonus and when the bonus is gone, so are the [mature-age] workers. What we need are measures that combat the attitudes at a workplace level.

"One of the big problems with discrimination is that it infuses the way we think about things. So pointing out how someone may have been discriminatory is one of the best ways to help eradicate it."

Positive media representation of workers of all ages is important too, Nielson adds. "The workplace is a reflection of broader society. People bring all their biases and beliefs to work, and if there aren't more positive social messages about workers of various ages, it's difficult to focus on workplace change."

The mature age job-seeker's action plan

1. Age-proof your resume."There's no obligation to provide it," says Neilson.

2. Showcase relevant experience and skills.You don't need to put every job you've ever had on there. "Use your CV to show what you have to offer and your achievements," suggests Neilson.

3. Use your network.While it can be difficult asking those you know for help, you'd be surprised at how your network can help pave the way into new opportunities.

4. Update your skills."We tend to assume that training is about young people, but it's not," says Neilson. Ensuring you're computer-literate can drastically improve your chances of gaining work. See a range of courses at SEEK Learning.

5. If you are discriminated against…Consider lodging a complaint. "You can contact the Human Rights Commission, the local anti-discrimination board or the Equal Opportunity Commission. Complaints don't always land you in court, but doing this can be a way to gain advice or assistance."

Mature-age job-seeker resources

Experience+
A government initiative that supports mature age job-seekers.

Adage National
A jobs board specialising in experienced workers aged 45 and over.

BeNext
A jobs board for baby boomers and those seeking part or full-time roles.

read more from