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Rolling Back the Years

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - 13:12

Forty years after she helped lead the women's movement in Australia, Susan Ryan is playing a pivotal role in ensuring the rights of older workers. Tom Skotnicki reports

In the 1960s and 1970s, Susan Ryan was in the vanguard of the women's movement in Australia and now 40 years later she is spearheading another push.

Elected as a senator for the ACT in 1975, she became Labor minister for education and youth affairs and minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women in 1983. In 1984 she was responsible for the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Ryan resigned in 1987 and in later years played a key role in the superannuation movement as president of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees.

It is not surprising when earlier this year the government was looking for Australia's first age discrimination commissioner, Ryan was a natural choice.

She faces a difficult task. The number of older workers in this country is increasing rapidly and some employers recognise their importance while others regard them as a liability.

But unlike previous generations, baby boomers are fighting back. They are retiring later and when facing obvious discrimination they are not going quietly. Their large numbers means they are exercising unprecedented economic and political power.

Thirty years ago, the percentage of the workforce over 55 was 10 per cent. Today it is 16 per cent. There are now more than one million workers aged over 55 and rising fast. There is a growing expectation workers will work for longer and in many cases will not retire until they are well over 65.

Ryan turned 69 last month. She refers to it as a "badge of honour … it gives me authenticity when I talk about these issues."

Has her age affected her capacity for work? Ryan said some mornings when she went swimming at Coogee Beach she felt as if she was still in her 20s but at other times she felt her age.

Ryan said there were some advantages from ageing. "In my parliamentary days I was full of energy and constantly on the move but at times I believe I was making decisions in haste.

"I was too impatient to achieve and missed some opportunities."

Ryan said in her 30s as a parliamentarian she would go for days with very little sleep and would accept every invitation but these days she is very selective and more careful about how she expends energy. "(Now) I am far more strategic and I pace myself."

Ryan said far too few employers recognised the qualities and experience of older workers.

"As a consequence many older workers have internalised all sorts of negative images," Ryan said. Common myths about older workers include: they are resistant to change; they have run out of steam and want to retire; they can't learn new skills; they represent a poor image for dynamic organisations; and they are less capable than young workers and skilled migrants.

At the same time, many older workers expect to decide when they will retire and want employers to provide flexible employment conditions including part-time work. However, this is unlikely unless the worker has skills in high demand.

Although theoretically it is easier to take legal action, the reality is the future lies in changing the attitude of employers. Ryan said while conciliation played an important role in providing workers with redress it was only one aspect of dealing with discrimination.

Attitudes have to change if unemployed workers over the age of 45 are to find it easier to secure a job and older workers are less likely to be targeted during redundancies.

It is still early days for the development of rights for older workers with the first age discrimination legislation passed in 2004. The legislation was strengthened last year.

Age discrimination researcher Dr Kate Barnett from the Australian Institute for Social Research at The University of Adelaide said the appointment of an age discrimination commissioner was an important step.

"It is a recognition of the fact people are working for longer and living longer and need employment protection."

Barnett said she hoped the commissioner would also act to remove the age limit on workers' compensation that stops at 65 and also the restrictions on income protection on superannuation policies.

She said there were still too many structural forms of discrimination.

Barnett said it was ironic that although discrimination was a serious problem, older working baby boomers were increasingly powerful.

"There are more older workers and they are also better educated than previous generations, more affluent and more likely to be professionals and managers," she said.

However, despite their economic power, many baby boomers have significant housing debts and in many cases still have dependents. This is likely to increase the pressure for workers to secure more age discrimination action.

"The baby boomers were always a large group and as a result, expectations toward ageing are changing. Not only will they challenge workplace discrimination but they expect to be able to have more flexible work conditions," Barnett said. "Make no mistake baby boomers are pushing back."

Ryan agreed older workers' expectations are changing. She said it was time to challenge all sorts of workplace practices.

She said in many cases, assumptions about ageing have simply been based on prejudice. For example, new scientific evidence rejects claims older workers cannot learn new skills.

"The latest neuro-research indicates that people of any age can make new synapses except of course for those with brain damage."

Ryan also argues that the claim of resistance to change needs to be analysed. "If someone has been doing something successfully for many years then they probably need a good reason to change."

She said there may be some resistance to change among older workers but the key is for managers to demonstrate the change is not just a matter of fashion but it is necessary to achieve certain outcomes. "It is about motivating older workers.

"It is also about training and when people want to keep their job, workers will do what is necessary. Managers also need to recognise that older workers will need training. Managers want people that are well matched to the task … but that is not about age.

"If you need an IT expert, the chances are it will be a younger employee but if an older worker has those skills then they should not be excluded on the basis of age.

"The concern is that we are hearing and finding through research that many workers are being told by companies that they are in their 50s and should take redundancy. It is about their age and not skills or capacity. Managers cannot be that lazy.

"Managers who are pursuing these discriminatory policies, either knowingly or inadvertently, should be aware they are breaching the law."

Ryan said employers who are serious about a non-discriminatory age policy should undertake a skills analysis of older workers to determine how they can best be utilised. There are federal funds available for the purpose.

"There is $5000 available for an audit," she said.

Treasurer Wayne Swan has also moved on age discrimination with the establishment of the Consultative Forum on Mature Age Participation to provide the government with advice on practical solutions to barriers on employment.

The forum will also focus on positive as well as negative attitudes to mature-age employment.

It will include representatives of several seniors groups as well as the Business Council of Australia, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group.

Ryan said National Seniors Australia was also working on a large research project on mature-age employment as part of the forum.

One of the objectives of the forum will be to identify employers that have a positive approach to mature-aged employment.

Ryan said eventually she would consider the establishment of a group of companies committed to positive mature-age policies.

As a result of the amendments to the Age Discrimination Act last year, age now has to be only one of the reasons for an employment decision for legal action to be taken.

To date all cases have been conciliated with not a single case referred to the Federal Court. Ryan said as a result the limits of the Act have not yet been fully tested. Legal costs are probably the main deterrent against seeking redress in the Federal Court.

Ryan suspects many workers are choosing not to take any action despite the fact they have experienced discrimination. She said some unemployed workers blame themselves and do not want to pursue further action.

"[They think] if we haven't got a job maybe it's something we did wrong."

Ryan rejects any suggestion that older workers are frequently the cause of their own problems. "If there is conflict between workers that is age related then it is the role of the manager to help resolve the situation."

Ryan is aware that sometimes there was conflict between people of different ages and advises mature-aged workers to avoid "irritating" phrases such as "in my day" or "you young people".

However, older worker should be entitled to discuss their experiences and corporate knowledge "without being labelled an old bore".

Ryan said older workers have rights and those need to be recognised. The percentage of older workers is likely to continue to rise for economic reasons if no other.

"We are all getting older." And that will inevitably mean greater rights for mature-aged workers.

Age management: Key components

There are seven dimensions identified for structuring age-management initiatives:

  • Job recruitment: Ensuring that mature-aged workers are not discriminated against and have equal access to available jobs.
  • Learning, training, and development: Ensuring that opportunities for training are offered throughout the working life, and positive action is taken to redress past discrimination, creating learning environments in the workplace, and tailoring training to the needs of older workers.
  • Promotion and internal job changes.
  • Flexible working practice: In the hours of work and the offering of reduced hours.
  • Workplace design and health promotion: Including ergonomics, designing jobs and workplaces to prevent or address functional decline.
  • Employment exit and the transition to retirement: In the timing and nature of r etirement, including gradual or phased retirement.
  • Changing attitudes to ageing workers within organisations: Including addressing ageism and raising awareness about the benefits of retaining older workers (Taylor, 2006: 24).

Source: 2009 Experience Works: the mature age employment challenge National Seniors Australia

Our ageing population

  • Aged over 55: 24%
  • Workers aged over 55: 16% (10% in 1980)
  • Australians over 55 available for work: 34%
  • Male workers over 55 employed as managers and professionals: 43%
  • Life expectancy: 82.0 (third in the OECD to Hong Kong and Japan)