Combatting ageism and embracing the ‘5-Generation’ workforce

Pioneering Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, once said: “all my life I faced sexism and racism, and then when I hit 40 – ageism.” 

By the time she was 30, Moreno had already won an Oscar and Golden Globe for her captivating turn as Anita in the classic film, West Side Story. By her mid-40s, she’d added a Grammy and a Tony, achieving the rare ‘grand slam’ of showbusiness known as an EGOT. 

Yet, when this brilliant talent reflected on her career decades later, the scars from the discrimination she faced remained raw. As her career progressed, opportunities for work – after finally shaking off the racially stereotypical roles originally being offered – were still limited due to her age. 

Rosalind Croucher
Rosalind Croucher AM

Many of us are aware of Hollywood’s continued shortcomings when it comes to diversity, and the ongoing fight for representation on the small and silver screens. But even much closer to home, ‘age’ is not what comes to people’s minds when we talk about diversity in the workplace.  

Sometimes it is how age is completely absent from discussions around workplaces that suggests older workers are not valued. A 2020 global survey of 6,000 employers from 36 countries found that more than half of businesses did not include age in their diversity and inclusion policies. 

Former Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, who completed her term in July, has often called ageism “pernicious and pervasive” and the “least understood form of discrimination”. 

It is relevant now, arguably more than ever, that we all understand ageism as an underlying driver of workplace age discrimination – and challenge the myths and perceptions about older people. The fact is Australians are getting older, and over the next 30 years our population will become the oldest it’s ever been. Australian Bureau of Statistics data reports that the number of people aged 65 and over will double to nearly nine million, and people aged 85 and older will triple to two million.  

Australians are also increasingly continuing in paid employment to older ages. As of July 1, the pension age has risen to 67, while a combination of flexible work arrangements, labour shortages, and cost of living pressures means people are either choosing to, or required to, work longer. 

Ageist stereotypes are deeply rooted in cultural values and norms that view ageing and older age as undesirable. They can foster a belief that older workers are somehow less competent, less capable of learning, have declining skills, and are less equipped to adapt to technological change than younger workers. But this is not the reality.

In April this year, for a fifth time, the Commission partnered with the Australian Human Resources Institute on Employing and Retaining Older Workers, a report providing insights into the employment climate and the shift in perceptions around our ageing workforce. 

The survey found one in six organisations will not consider hiring people aged 65 and above, while only a quarter said they were open to hiring those aged 65 and above ‘to a large extent’. 

Disappointingly, it also found 18 per cent of employers still say they have an age above which they ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ won’t recruit. The good news is that this is a drastic improvement from a decade ago, but it is not good enough. 

The reluctance to recruit older workers appears to stand in contrast with employers’ actual experiences of working with them. According to the survey, many employers reported no difference between older and younger workers in terms of job performance, concentration, ability to adapt to change, energy levels, and creativity. 

Between 2021–22, the Commission received 271 complaints related to age discrimination, which equates to roughly six per cent of all complaints received. Most of these complaints were about employment and came from complainants aged 55 and over. Percentagewise, this is not a large number of complaints, and the actual experiences of discrimination may be far deeper and wider than these numbers reflect. 

Ageism also tends to be gendered, with women – particularly women of colour – further subjected to the intersecting prejudices of age, ethnicity, and gender bias. This is exactly what Rita Moreno endured half a century ago. It’s clear that lessons still need to be learned. 

Employers who ignore the experience and qualities of older people, and the advantages of the ‘5-Generation’ workforce (where five generations work together), do so at their peril. Respectful workplaces and great leaders go much further than recognising gender and sexual harassment as potential risks, but also see the inherent risks of ageist stereotyping. 

Employers can demonstrate their commitment to building an inclusive workplace by: 

  1. having clear policies about age discrimination and communicating these to managers and staff, regularly checking that the practices reflect the policies. 
  1. promoting flexible work as ‘business as usual’ for employees of all ages. 
  1. ensuring older workers have the same opportunities to access training, mentoring, and leadership as workers of other ages; and 
  1. providing reciprocal knowledge transfer opportunities, i.e., for older workers to mentor and train younger/new staff, or cross-mentoring programs. 

Please see potential employees for the skills and potential they offer to businesses. With experience can come great wisdom. Creating and maintaining an age diverse workforce is more reflective of our society, and just good business.  

As Dr. Patterson regularly says, “the culture we accept now will be the culture we inherit.” If we don’t further develop and foster healthier workplace cultures now, I harbour great concerns for the environment we’ll eventually inherit. 

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM is President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and acting Age Discrimination Commissioner.