Age diversity: The benefits of older workers

In many cultures, older people are revered and their experience and wisdom highly-valued. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in the workplace in Australia.

People aged 55 and over make up about a quarter of the population, but form just 16 per cent of the workforce, according to a report on employment discrimination against older Australians entitled Willing to Work.

The report states that 27 per cent of people over the age of 50 had recently experienced discrimination in the workplace.

“Individuals who are subject to negative assumptions, stereotypes and discrimination can experience stress, and a decline in physical and mental health. The experience can also diminish a person’s self-confidence, self-esteem and motivation to remain in the workforce,” the report stated.

“Discrimination can occur at all stages in the employment cycle. Older Australians can feel ‘shut out’ of recruitment, be offered less professional development opportunities, or perceive that they are targeted for redundancy during periods of organisational restructure. There are negative assumptions and pervasive stereotypes about older people that contribute to discriminatory practices.”

When older people lose their jobs, they struggle to find new ones, the report found. In November 2015, the average duration of unemployment for mature-age people was 68 weeks, compared with 30 weeks for 15–24 year olds and 49 weeks for 25–54 year olds.

“It is unthinkable that people who lose their jobs in their 50s may live another 40 years without paid employment,” said Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner.

“Age discrimination in employment undermines the basic human right to work and can have a devastating effect on individuals; impacting on physical and mental health and undermining a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem.”

There are significant benefits for the entire economy to be gained from increasing employment of older workers, including reduced overall welfare expenditure and increased self-reliance in retirement, according to the Willing to Work report. A 7 per cent increase in mature-age labour force participation would raise GDP in 2022 by approximately $25 billion.

“Eliminating discrimination and removing barriers to equal workforce participation is also beneficial to business and the economy. Organisations that are inclusive and diverse report tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation while also having access to a broader talent pool and an improved organisational reputation,” the report stated.

Learning and mentoring opportunities

Hardware chain Bunnings has seen the benefits of employing older workers.

“We learned a long time ago that older, more experienced team members are an integral part of creating a business that engenders trust and confidence for our customers.  Our team spans six generations from 15 to 80, which provides fantastic learning and mentoring opportunities for everyone,” says Andrew Macdonald, Bunnings General Manager, Human Resources, Australia and New Zealand.

“It also helps us all benefit from the wisdom and character that life experience brings. Our diverse local teams reflect their communities and naturally, mature aged workers have some great experience and can often inspire local customers with their D.I.Y projects and knowledge.”

Older workers at the hardware retailer also act as mentors for younger staff members. “This is a win for customers, it's a win for our younger team members and it's a win for the mature age worker,” says Macdonald.

“Younger team members naturally gravitate to these experienced people and we get informal mentoring and fantastic training and development out of all of this that ultimately our customers benefit from. Team work is absolutely integral to our business and you can’t have teamwork without respect, which our older workers naturally command.  It’s a really important part of our culture.”

Australia Post also employs significant numbers of older workers.

“Nearly 60 per cent of our workforce are aged 45 and over, which is higher than the national population average. Employees in the higher age bracket display high levels of engagement across Australia Post,” a spokesman says.

“We are proud of our workforce and the fact we have people of all ages working alongside each other. Australia Post’s equal employment opportunity process ensures age is not a factor in making hiring decisions.”

The Human Rights Commission says company and government leaders should commit to recruiting and retaining older people and building inclusive workplace cultures by developing and communicating a strong statement of commitment to action by CEO and leadership.

The HRC also recommends they set voluntary targets and collect baseline data to raise visibility of issues, tracking and reporting on progress regularly.

They should also ensure non-discriminatory recruitment and retention practices by reviewing attraction, recruitment and retention processes to ensure non-discriminatory practices, language and accessibility.

Where recruitment agencies are used, employers should set expectations about diversity, non-discriminatory practice and compliance with legal obligations into contracts

Manager and supervisors with older workers in their teams need support in creating and managing diverse teams and flexible workplaces, such as assistance with job redesign and building skills to manage employees flexibly.