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Interview with Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

Australia, Interview, October 2012

Deloitte, Diversity, Global researchDid you know that:

  • If Australia achieved a further 3% increase in mature age participation rates over and above that currently expected, the national economy would be $33.0 billion, or 1.6%, larger?
  • Or that should mature age workforce participation lift an additional 5%, the national economy would be $47.9 billion, or 2.4%, larger?

So how do we increase participation rates in older employees to realise these benefits? How do we get employers to see the value that this untapped resource pool offers their organisation? How can we help advance this grey army?

Who better to direct such questions to than Susan Ryan AO, Australia’s first appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner (‘the Commissioner’). In her role with the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commissioner has been tasked with combatting age based discrimination. She has a long history of ‘firsts’ and impressive achievements, such as being the first female minister in a Federal Labor Government, where, amongst other senior cabinet roles, she served as the Minister for Education for two terms in the 80’s. During her tenure she maintained tuition free tertiary education.

Her new role has presented new and unique challenges. The Commissioner has recently returned from the US where she was invited to present at the official UN Working Group on the Rights of Older Persons. The UN Forum considered the need for a new convention on the rights of older people. She was asked to showcase what Australia is doing in this space. And while we should be proud of what we have done to date, as she sees it, “… we still have a lot more to do.”

The Commissioner agreed to be interviewed by Deloitte in October 2012 and provided some valuable insight into what more needs to be done in relation to age discrimination in Australia.

The vision and necessity of the role

The Commissioner’s vision for this role, as she sees it, is to “create a society / labour market in which people are assessed on what they can do, not by the number of birthdays they have had. This is not just in employment, but in society more broadly, such as in the design and delivery of health services. She urges that instead of stereotyping we need to focus on what each individual is capable of contributing.

The role was created by Parliament in 2011, as an amendment to the Age Discrimination Act 2004. This Act makes discrimination based on age unlawful in certain designated areas including employment and goods and services. Response to this Act since 2004 has been slow. The objective of this new role is to strengthen the effects of the Act and focus more attention on the removal of age based discrimination, particularly in employment. She pointed out that the projections of the Treasury’s Intergenerational Reports demonstrate that current employment policies and practices continue to discriminate against older people. She says “we need more than the Act itself. We need far reaching community education to get the whole of society changing its mind-set about age.”

The Commissioner’s view is that the required changes need to be brought about at a cultural level. She believes that “ageism, at the end of the day, is a stereotype which creates prejudice in society, and it is this prejudice that must be broken down”. She sees it as being similar to the challenges faced by women in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, mind-sets such as ‘don’t give her the job, she will cry under pressure’. She stated that “it just takes one or two success stories to start breaking down those prejudices”.

Changes are needed across many levels of society. Some organisations are better equipped than others to commence this journey. The Commissioner believes that larger firms are better placed to deal with the issues of age. It is her opinion that these larger organisations sometimes have CEO’s who understand the business potential of the older workforce. These CEOs are developing strategies to retain older workers. The challenge is greater for smaller and middle tier firms. These firms can find dealing with the age issue just too hard. She noted: “Many people just see older people as ‘deaf’ or ‘difficult’ just because they are old.” When did our reaction to older people become so irrational?

While long term change is clearly necessary, the Commissioner believes “we need to act on this immediately. Otherwise we are just letting all this knowledge and experience go to waste as older workers retire or are forced out of the workforce. Instead of forcing them out the door, we should be looking at ways to extend their working life.”

Balancing the focus on youth and mature age discrimination

The Commissioner points out that discrimination based on age can happen at any time in a person’s life. At the Commission, there is a complaints handling process. Age based complaints come from a diverse range of people within the community. For example, the Commissioner notes “when people first go into the workforce, they may be paid junior rates. While junior rates are there to give young people a start, they can be used just to get the cheapest possible employees. Once these young workers reach adult wage age, they may be sacked regardless of performance. That is age discrimination”.

She believes the main age discrimination issues for younger people are around employment and tenancy. Young people are stereotyped as irresponsible and refused tenancies. .In relation to older workers, the Commissioner says the main issue is the assumption that age always equals a loss of capability. Research, she said, has found that men in their 50-55’s are particularly badly affected by this prejudice. They find themselves discriminated against for the first time in their lives. “Losing their jobs at this age, because of age discrimination, causes some to succumb to mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. These conditions in turn make them less likely to be hired.”

The prejudice that older workers, both men and women face is based on the wrong assumption that ‘decline is inevitable’. According to the Commissioner, “prejudice just comes down to laziness”. In explaining this prejudice, she commented that “employers can find it easier to fill in the space in their head about a person with this assumption, rather than ask: ‘who are they?’ ‘What have they done?’ Using prejudicial assumptions is just laziness”.

In relation to unconscious bias, the Commissioner says “with HR professionals we have to help them explore their own unconscious biases. They are often unaware of their own biases. In the view of the Commissioner, HR professionals are the key to driving the change. They can change, they are intelligent, they are smart, and they are connected to the business. They can become aware of the implications of the advice they give. When they go to their CEO’s, they can decide to get rid of the age prejudice and give more realistic advice in relation to recruitment decisions”.

Age discrimination and socioeconomic groups

When looking at age and socioeconomic groups the Commissioner discussed three distinguishable groups; retiring CEO’s, middle managers and blue / pink collar workers.

In the Commissioner’s opinion, when a CEO is looking to transition to something else, they have good options. She stated that “CEOs are better equipped to deal with the changes that come about as they get older. They have a specific set of capabilities that are in high demand. They have the option of consultancy, non-executive board positions and so on. The transition is quite possible for them”.

However, she raised a poignant issue facing older middle managers. “Older middle managers, such as those in sales or marketing may not have a specific high demand professional skill, such as engineering or law. Most often it is this group that is targeted for redundancies. It is harder for them to move into different roles. These workers may require additional training or reskilling, something potential employers may not want to bother with.”

Finally, the Commissioner commented on challenges facing blue collar / pink collar workers, such as tradespeople, and those who have worked in manufacturing .She concedes that these workers have skills that do not easily translate to other roles. However, she says some companies have recognised the strengths of this group, for example, “Bunnings hires older tradespeople because they have the skills and knowledge required to sell their products, and the Bunnings businesses flourish as a result.”

Benefits for individuals, enterprise and society

The Commissioner’s main focus is at the individual level, as her remit is within that of the Human Rights Commission. She describes the main benefit from getting rid of age discrimination is that “older people live the life they want to live. At an individual level, this can reduce the levels of depression and increase the feelings of self-worth. Ensuring that people live as they wish to is a huge boost to their wellbeing”.

In relation to the economy, the Commissioner discussed the work conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, in modelling the economic impact of increasing the participation of older workers. She mentioned that this research found that increasing the participation rate by 3% would have a positive impact to the tune of around $30 billion per year, and an increase of 5% would result in an increase of around $48 billion.

She then went on to comment about the participation rate of older workers, stating “that while our participation rate for our under 55 year old workforce is good in relation to other OECD countries, the participation rate for the 55-65 year old bracket is not as healthy. Ideally we would like to increase the participation rate to that of the 35-45 year old bracket. The trend around this is positive however. It just needs to be accelerated. It is crucial to do it quickly”.

The Commissioner then commented that we need to help older Australians get ‘job ready’. For example, several years out of the workforce could mean that IT systems have changed and updated in that time, meaning that any person who has had time out of the workforce may experience difficulties returning to work. It is her view that “all that is required to overcome this change is adequate training or ensuring that older Australian’s have some form of continued attachment to the workplace to keep up with these changes”.

She also discussed the benefits to business. She conceded that “in terms of benefits to business, more work is required to actually capture this data”’. However she was firm in her belief that what is good for governments is inevitably good for business. After all, she noted “everyone does well when the economy is healthy”. She highlighted one view that has come up during her discussions with CEOs is that “a business that fails to capitalise on older workers, is a business that won’t be around in the future…when businesses implement an older worker strategy, they are not doing it because it is “be nice to old people week”; they are doing it to ensure they keep making money”.

Practical advice for HR professionals

In the Commissioner’s eye, there are three key activities that HR professionals can carry out and her advice is this:

1. Boast about success stories: “Look at what you have got. Consider the strengths that these older workers bring to your business and the value they add and ask ‘how do we develop this?” And don’t forget to boast about positive stories. Talk about your positive experiences with older workers, otherwise people won’t get it. After all, “we need to celebrate – we are living longer, it is a medical miracle – it should not be seen as a burden. Businesses should be proud to say they recognise what their people can achieve”.

2. Eradicate ‘generationally different mind-sets’: For too long we have fallen into the trap of thinking that people are different because they were born in different years. It is time that we shook up this out-dated way of thinking. The Commissioner stated that “HR practitioners have got caught up in generational labels, Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers. Who knows what we are up to now. The baby boomers were called that because there was a population boom after the war. Those people are now in their 60’s. Too much discussion centres on ‘generations’, like Gen Y just want to take too many holidays? But not all Gen Yers like taking holidays! The discussion around generations is unfair. Instead of labels, let’s look at the individuals. We need to abandon age cohort labelling”.

3. Have a long, hard chat with your recruiters: The doorway to your organisation is your recruitment function, whether it be outsourced or internal. Make sure recruiters are aligned to your way of thinking. To highlight this point, the Commission stated that “for example, currently recruiters might not send a 55 year old candidate as they think that candidate won’t get the job and they therefore won’t get commission. It is these recruitment companies that can help drive the change.”

In her final words, the Commissioner was adamant about the role that Australia can play in reducing age discrimination, both here and abroad. Put simply, she said this:

“Australia can be the forerunner on this issue. We can be leaders in liberating older people from discrimination. We have a history of being forerunners; we were the first to allow women to vote (well almost, New Zealand just beat us); we were the first country to make primary education free; and we led the way offering free public hospitals. We again can lead the way on this. We should lead if not for any other reason than the fact that business always benefits when Australia adopts a leading position on issues such as this.”

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