Can we seriously say that 50 is too old to work?
Where did we Australians get this idea that 50 is old, too old, over the hill? Since becoming Age Discrimination Commissioner, I have been asked this question many times. I can’t answer it.
But we have to find an answer. We have to get rid of this damaging idea. Because of it, too many people are being forced out of their jobs when they have barely turned 50. When they apply for a new job, they are often ignored, or fobbed off with excuses like, “You are overqualified”, or “We are looking for someone with lots of energy”! This fob-off is not only insulting, not only damaging to the well-qualified, motivated mature worker, it leads him or her on the downward path to poverty in old age.
If sustained, these experiences can lead to depression. After all, everyone needs to feel useful, to get recognition for a job well done. We all enjoy the company of fellow workers, and most of us need to earn money and grow our super, well into our 60’s and beyond. If all this is denied us, just because of prejudice, we suffer. And, tragic as it is, this is not just about the waste of individuals.
The national economy needs more skilled workers. Employers tell us this all the time. Governments of all persuasions want more of us to achieve financial independence before we retire. Yet, despite the demand for skilled workers, and the supply of mature workers, we still tolerate a huge though unnecessary gulf between supply and demand. National productivity suffers, and public spending on age pensions and health benefits increases.
So today, on the International Day of Older People, I hope we stop and think about all this.
Yes, we all get older. And we know that in Australian society, as in all developed societies, the proportion of older people is growing, as the proportion of younger people declines. The fact that we are living longer and in better health should be a matter for rejoicing. But age discrimination turns this historic achievement into a negative - a worrying burden.
We must not accept this false view any longer. And we don’t need to.
Some forward-looking employers are already putting new opportunities in place to enable their mature workers to work longer, and even to hire new ones. Such changes are pretty straightforward. They can include offering more part-time roles to people who wish to work fewer hours to free up time for other interests or to care for family members. Or roles could be changed to include less intense project management and more mentoring.
As a society, we need to relearn our respect for age. We need to restore the principle of merit and apply it irrespective of age.
The belief that you can’t teach older dogs new tricks has no basis in science. When properly motivated and instructed, anyone can learn new things. The rapid increase in use of the internet, including online banking and smart phones, by older Australians supports this capacity to change. There are government payments available to employers for skills analysis of their older workers. And if some retraining is required, further funding can be provided.
Everyone knows an older person they admire - perhaps a grandparent or a community volunteer who helps keep school crossings safe or trains youngsters at the local Nippers, or runs their own business. These people are terrific -and they aren’t rare.
Most older people are healthy and positive. Most will not need to go into residential care, nor will they be afflicted by dementia. Much as we must support better standards of care for frail older people, and more research and more understanding of dementia, we should not see these difficulties as typical of all older people.
Research shows that many people, up to and beyond 70, want to continue in work. They could be an important part of a more productive economy - that growing economy we need. If the only thing that stops them is age discrimination, we should all attack that. Next time someone thoughtlessly remarks,” Isn’t she getting a bit long in the tooth for that job?”, or “Why waste a training course on him? He’s turned 50”, challenge them and insist on the facts.
One thing is sure. Every one of us will get older. With any luck we will all reach true old age, heading for the personal century. Let’s make sure that this journey is one where everyone gets to experience dignity, respect and opportunity.
I hope by International Older Person’s Day 2012, here in Australia, we will have already achieved some progress.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…