Age discrimination is alive and well in
corporate Australia

Human resources professional and self-described ‘boomer seeking full time employment (but masquerading as a consultant)’, David Wilson, gives us his very personal insight into the frustrations of trying to maintain a career after the age of 50.

Privileged elite or double-y disadvantaged?

Adele Horin′s Sydney Morning Herald article of 16 May 2011 (Workplace luck deserts many baby boomers) struck a very loud chord with me. In it, a social researcher was quoted as saying, “It would be worthwhile to look further into the reasons why so many (boomers) are out of work who want to be in work”. One month later, Australia′s first full-time Age Discrimination Commissioner was appointed. I pondered whether the establishment of an affirmative action agency for mature-age workers would follow. Was the day nearing when corporations would be named and shamed for never hiring anyone over 50 years of age? Let’s hope the ‘grey ceiling’ is never bad enough to necessitate such action.

Workplace ‘luck’ certainly changes after 50. In my ‘youth’, from 30 to 45 years of age, five job applications always attracted five job interviews and at least one job offer always followed. I never missed a short list and career progression was breezy. At 60 years of age, 180 applications produced one employer interview during seven months of unemployment and countless agency interviews. Had my well honed competencies, skills and qualifications disappeared overnight? On the contrary, my skills and competencies were greater in scope and depth and more relevant than ever – not to mention my enhanced emotional intelligence. Networking the ‘interim’ job market was my only option.

The act of hiding my age and removing 15 years of job experience from my CV quickly became an ‘elephant in the interview room’. In theory, age becomes officially known when superannuation application forms are completed. However, most employers and recruitment agencies will sheepishly admit that such statements as, “too experienced” or “too senior for the role” or “not a career path fit” or simply “too old”, do currently occur during the recruitment process behind closed doors. Age ranges are discussed in recruitment agency briefings. Despite anti-discrimination laws, mature-age applications are sometimes culled much in the same way as female applications were prior to the inception of anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation. Employer consciousness with respect to gender and race discrimination has come a long way although there is still more to go. However, I believe the journey for employers to reduce age discrimination across all classes has barely begun.

What would the ideal future landscape at work look like? Employers would vie for a “Mature-age Employer of Choice” award. Job advertisements would be “Mature-Age Friendly”. Australian Human Resources Institute awards for the “Best Mature-Age Program” would be highly sought after. Boomers would play a natural role in knowledge management and sustainability. Transitioning to retirement would be as common place as transitioning from maternity leave.

Governments would act. Requests for tender would routinely call for Mature-Age Participation Plans. To sustain the “clever country”, 457 visa sponsorships would be subject to mature-age pool testing. Centrelink would learn that not all boomers require “re-training”. (Current arrangements are insulting to most boomers.)

There is much employers can do to reduce the exclusion of mature-age workers. The imagery projected by some company and recruitment agency web sites – along with the wording of some job advertisements – is perceived as code for “mature-age job seekers need not apply”. Monitoring of direct and indirect age discrimination in advertising should be as routine as that for gender, race and other unlawful grounds.

As boomers exit the workforce, many organisations are at risk of losing mission-critical skills. The need for knowledge sustainability programs should be as critical as the need for induction programs.

Savvy companies use boomer-led mentoring and coaching strategies to assure the next generation of leaders, graduates, cadets and apprentices. Some organisations use retiree alumni programs to maintain contact and draw on critical/legacy skills when needed. Other companies regard “legacy” as the final stage of their HR life-cycle where their “Sage Program” features (and supports) their “Young Guns Program” along with community, Indigenous and corporate faculty programs.

Key skills can be retained for longer periods as many boomers relish the opportunity to work part-time either leading up to and/or after retirement. Legal superannuation options include “transition to retirement”, however, most employers don′t accommodate a transition program to mirror this option internally. Employers and mature-age employees need to consider all options.

In joining the dots between the current challenges of ageing workforce, sustainability, skills shortages, knowledge retention, mentoring/coaching, transition to retirement, critical skill pools, centres of excellence and diversity, employers will find that mature-age workers are key.