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Age Discrimination, the new challenge for teachers

Discrimination Age Discrimination

1. Introduction

Thank you for your introduction, and I thank the NSW Teachers Federation for inviting me to speak to you today.

I start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land upon which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to elders both past and present.

You have asked me to speak today about my role as Age Discrimination Commissioner.

The first thing to say is that age discrimination is the result of serious and deeply embedded prejudice in our society. It is as pernicious and damaging as sexism or racism or disability discrimination.

Age prejudice has serious negative impacts on older people themselves, on our workforce and our national economy, on civil society and the quality of our community interactions. So serious and widespread is age discrimination, it often violates the basic human rights of those who are the targets of it.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, I, along with six other commissioners and a President, work to achieve a higher recognition of Australia’s human rights obligations, to advocate better protection of those rights, and to educate all sectors of our community about what those rights mean for them, and why and how rights must be protected.

Like the teaching profession, the AHRC has education at the heart of our work.

I hope you will agree that in this respect we share some common ground.


2. What is Age Discrimination?

Age discrimination occurs when people are treated differently and worse, in a range of defined areas and services, simply because of their age. It happens often, it usually but not always happens to older people, and it is happening more, because we have more older people making up our ageing society.

It is now widely understood that Australia’s population is ageing. Today we live about thirty years longer than our grandparents did. By 2050 the number of Australians over 85 will have increased fourfold. The fastest growing demographic in today’s Australia is the cohort of those over 65. This change has been rapid and dramatic. It poses many policy and attitudinal challenges which so far have not been met.

It is the purpose of my meeting with you today to urge you to be part of meeting it.

Australia is one of the longest lived societies in the world, up there with Japan. Everyone in this room today is likely to live past 90. How are we preparing for this massive increase in longevity?

We need to recognise that all of us are changed by it. Not only teaching, but all of our professions are ageing along with the general society. Many older Australians, including teachers, remain in work far longer than previous generations.

This is a positive trend but one that is usually misunderstood at policy level, and one that is often discouraged. We should in fact be encouraging our experienced teachers, like all our experienced individuals, to stay active in the workforce for as long as possible.

The teaching profession has some of the highest numbers of mature age workers of any sector. The NSW Department of Education and Communities’ March 2013 report shows that over 40% of all permanent school teachers are over 50, and almost a fifth of that group over 60. Those numbers are only going to increase in the years to come. This is actually a valuable development, for the older teachers themselves, for students, for education in this state, and for the economy.

Anti older teacher prejudice and myths remain alive however, and lead to unfair treatment of both younger and older teachers.

As new teachers are recruited, many are led to believe in a generational gulf separating younger recruits and older teachers. Too often they are encouraged, by media stereotypes and skewed reporting, to think that there are strict dividing lines between the young and the old, as if we are in some sort of proxy war between the generations. This wrong belief can lead to unfair treatment of people based on stereotyped assumptions of their age: in short, the rise of age discrimination and ageism.

In Australia we have the benefit of legislative protection against age discrimination in the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth). The act protects individuals from unfair treatment which targets them because of their age, or a characteristic which generally pertains to or is imputed to a certain age. It covers many parts of public life, including employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services.

Despite this law, unlawful age discrimination persists.

The AHRC’s recent research report, Fact or Fiction: Stereotypes of Older Australians shows the heart of the matter is in perception: prejudiced views see all older people as forgetful, short tempered, rigid and backwards looking.[1] Many see ageing as an inexorable process of decline, towards the inevitable result that older people become a burden, a loudly resented drain on resources.[2]


3. Age Discrimination and Workplaces

Within the workplace, and in recruitment, age discrimination has been described as ‘systemic’.[3] At the Australian Human Rights Commission approximately two thirds of the complaints that we receive in the area of age discrimination are related to employment.[4]

Research commissioned by the Financial Services Council in 2012 found that three out of ten older workers surveyed had direct experience of age-related discrimination.[5] The most frequently cited example of this discrimination was being made redundant or laid-off before others, an observation which was backed by the responses from employers.

Such incidents are a direct result of the deep seated beliefs about older workers that I mentioned earlier. But as with most stereotypes, the reality paints a far different picture.

Recent research by Monash University and the Australian Institute of Management QLD & NT indicates that older workers may bring specific management skills and crystallized intelligence (intelligence based on knowledge acquisition and experience), whereas younger managers may have higher levels of fluid intelligence (basic or abstract reasoning ability).[6] The researchers found no statistically significant difference between the capacities of older and younger managers, and concluded that both age groups contribute equally to the workplace, although possibly in different ways.[7]

Contrary to common belief, factual research shows that older workers are equally committed to their jobs and just as capable as their younger counterparts;[8] in fact, they complement each other to build a more efficient and productive workplace. The most successful workplace is the one characterised by intergenerational cooperation.

While it is essential to have in place legal restraints on age discrimination in the workplace, the solution is not all about laws. The more fundamental challenge is to change deeply held and heavily entrenched attitudes within the labour market. As the Australian Law Reform Commission noted:

“Law reform can remove barriers to mature age workforce participation by removing specific age limits, and by making discrimination on the basis of age unlawful. But law can only go so far. Achieving cultural change was singled out by crucial for reform. It is ‘the real game changer’.”[9]

Changing culture is massively challenging. I know all teachers are aware of and have taken part in the great and long battles to tackle racist attitudes, to reduce sex discrimination and disability discrimination in our schools, and more recently to overturn the exclusion and harassment of individuals who happen to be born GLBT or I.

Teachers have done powerful work in these vital areas of culture change. The inclusive and respectful attitudes you develop in your pupils will help transform our society into a better one.

But there is more to do. Teachers I hope will be part of the powerful stakeholder groups who will change the message about age and ageing.

This is a universal challenge. We all get older, unless we die, and Australians, all of you included, are living longer and longer.

If we live to 90, we would all wish that the last two or three decades of our life will be secure, dignified, and positive. We would hope to be respected and included, and valued as we were in our most productive decades.

Organisations like the Teachers Federation will continue to advocate, as you have always done so effectively, for better workplace practices. I hope now in your advocacy you will take account of the contributions of older teachers, and the value of older teachers being able to connect with younger teachers to pass on experience and knowledge, and foster intergenerational co-operation.

Gains can also be made by intelligent and purposeful structural change.

For many teachers, a major element of an age-friendly workplace is increased flexibility.[10] Providing more part time work, or allowing for the retirement process to be phased in gradually while ensuring job security and continuing benefits are examples of productive policies which enable older teachers to continue to contribute and participate.

Age friendliness doesn’t end with the workplace. With increasing secondary school teacher shortages in NSW, recruitment processes should also become more age friendly.

The Department of Education and Communities in its 2018 projections for the teaching workforce simply assumes that the bulk of older teachers will simply retire at 55 years or superannuation access age;[11] this is seen as natural and inevitable, but it is an expectation that can discriminate against older teachers who are capable and willing to continue working.

Approaches to retain and recruit older teachers are overlooked and underdeveloped.

In fact, teaching is now the most sought after job for those people who are making a career change.[12] This means that there is going to be a large number of older people looking to enter teaching.

More young teachers are of course a part of the solution, but they are not the only part. Especially when we speak of recruitment and teacher shortages, older teachers have a role to play as well. The NSW Teachers Federation is well placed to start that conversation, and bring it to the fore.

4. Discrimination against Older Women

As I approach my conclusion, I want to touch upon issues that affect a particular group of older workers: older women.

The gender segmentation of the teaching workforce is well known and documented. In NSW, over 80% of primary school teachers are women, while almost 60% of secondary school teachers are women,[13] statistics which are indicative of school systems across Australia and even overseas.[14] This raises unique challenges for the teaching profession as these women age.

Consider the current state of affairs.

Older women have much lower workforce participation rates than their male counterparts in all age groups. Though we have seen some strong improvement in overall participation, Australia still lags significantly behind comparable OECD countries like Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the United States.[15]

In general, older women earn only two thirds of the income of older men and retire earlier with around half the superannuation of men of the same age. They live longer and more often as single people.

Gender and age stereotypes combine to create a culture where older women are expected to retire earlier, often to assume carer roles. Many teachers live in the sandwich generation: they have adult children living at home, or help with grandchildren, and as well are taking on more caring of their elderly parents. These work-life pressures, when met with unwillingness by employers to entertain more flexible working arrangements make it much harder for them to continue to participate in the labour market. I am sure that older female teachers can find themselves in this position. More flexible work options would ensure that their experiences and talents are not lost and their standard of living can be protected.

5. Conclusion

We have begun to make headway on a number of these issues, through campaigns, and publications, targeted both at employers and business decision makers, and at the community at large. We have the legal protections against discrimination, and the regulatory frameworks that lay the groundwork for a fair and equal society, irrespective of age.

But the biggest battle is still in front of us.

We need to change the way that age and ageing itself is seen; not as a burden, or a terrible inevitability, but simply as another stage in life, rich with its own opportunities for businesses, for communities, for education and for older Australians themselves.

As Age Discrimination Commissioner, one of my priorities this year is increasing inter-generational co-operation. As teachers, you are one of the most important forces in bridging the generational divide. One of the greatest opportunities we have in combatting age discrimination is to shape and mould the understandings of future generations to overcome widespread apathy, and the feeling that such issues just don’t matter.

Everyone ages. It is in the interests of all generations, and all Australians, to help create an environment that gives us the power to live positive and valued lives for all of our long years, and to take steps to ensure the wisdom and experience acquired over many decades is not lost to the next generation.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Fact or Fiction: Stereotypes of Older Australians, 2013.
[2] A Karpf ‘Ageing is a mixture of gains and losses: why we shouldn’t fear getting old’, The Guardian, 4 January 2014. At: (viewed 23 January 2014)
[3] The Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commissions and the Australian Employers Convention, Age Limits: Age-related discrimination in employment affecting workers over 45, 2001, p. 5
[4] Australian Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2010-2011, 2011, p. 115. At:
[5] Westfield Wright Communications and Research, Attitudes to older workers, prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p.6
[6] J Sarros, A Pirola-Merlo & R Baker. Research Report: The Impact of Age on Managerial Style, Department of Management Monash University and Australian Institute of Management QLD/NT, 2012
[7] J Sarros, A Pirola-Merlo & R Baker. Research Report: The Impact of Age on Managerial Style, Department of Management Monash University and Australian Institute of Management QLD/NT, 2012, pp. 3-4, 12-13, 23; Australian Institute for Social Research (2009), Experience Works: the mature age employment challenge, National Seniors Australia, p. 30
[8] Australian Institute of Management NSW & ACT Training Centre Ltd, Engaging and Retaining Older Workers, 2013, p. 12. At: (viewed 24 January 2014)
[9] Australian Law Reform Commission, Access All Ages – Older Workers and Commonwealth Laws, ALRC Report 120, 2013, p. 6. At: (viewed 24 January 2014)
[10] S Simpson, ‘Continue Working or retire?’, Education 93(12), Dec 2012, p. 19. At: (viewed 24 January 2014)
[11] NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2013 teaching Workforce Supply and Demand, 2013 p. 5. At: (viewed 29 January 2014)
[12] B Pike, ‘Teaching older workers new tricks’, The Daily Telegraph 25 January 2014. At: (viewed 28 January 2014)
[13] NSW Department of Education and Communities, Male School Teachers Factsheet, 2013. At: (viewed 24 January 2014)
[14] NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2013 teaching Workforce Supply and Demand, 2013 p. 7. At: (viewed 24 January 2014)
[15] G Gilfillan & L Andrews, Labour Force Participation of Women Over 45, Australian Productivity Commission, 2011; J Abhayaratna & R Lattimore, Workforce Participation Rates – How Does Australia Compare, Australian Productivity Commission, 2007

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner