About 90% of Australians agree that age discrimination is likely to occur in the workplace (a much higher percentage than agree it occurs in social situations). And over a quarter of older Australians have experienced some form of age discrimination, according to a national survey released in April 2015.

Launching the results of that survey, Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan pointed out; ‘Nearly three in five of those who were out of a job and seeking paid work were a target of age discrimination.’

About a year ago, Susan Ryan shared her thoughts with me in an interview.

She says that people who lose their job in their 50s face the most challenges in getting re-hired. ‘It’s financially devastating, but it’s also psychologically devastating. In my view, the number of older people drawing the disability pension is directly linked to age discrimination.’

The gender gap is also a worrying trend. ‘Women in their 50s and 60s generally need to work even more than men, particularly if they’re living without a partner… we’ve got a burgeoning problem of homelessness amongst older women, those just sucked into poverty because they can’t get employment and they have nowhere to live.’

Government ministers are taking Ryan’s advice and research seriously – they also understand the negative impact of ageism on the economy. Changing employer attitudes is a bigger challenge.

‘I think Australian society is very ageist, and I link that to the commercial promotion of youth’, says Ryan. ‘Employers in general are very conservative, they’re low risk and accept the common prejudices.’

The concept of creating intergenerational teams is essential – it’s not about choosing older workers to the detriment of younger people. ‘The biggest thing is to get them to take off their blinkers and say ‘I want the person who can do the job.’

There are some small signs that things are starting to shift, and it’s important to remember that many employers positively prefer older workers. So (to paraphrase a fridge magnet) ‘be alert, but not alarmed’…

Joanna Maxwell

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