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Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Discrimination Age Discrimination

CPA Australia Masters Series 2014 Luncheon

Wednesday 23 July 2014

CPA Australia, Level 20, 28 Freshwater Place, Southbank,

The Hon Susan Ryan AO
Age Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission


Acknowledge traditional owners.

Thank you for the invitation to address you today. I am pleased to be here and impressed and encouraged that CPA is holding a Masters Luncheon on the important topic of age discrimination in the workplace. Your Masters program demonstrates that the CPA at least does not need to be persuaded about the value of experience or the good sense of maintaining engagement with the more mature members of the profession.

You have invited me to speak about the key achievements to date in my role as Age Discrimination Commissioner, and to outline the Commission’s future plans to address age discrimination in the workplace.

I set as my key objective for my term the achievement of revolutionary change in our attitudes towards ageing and older people.

My vision was and is that we would all live in a society where we are respected for who we are and what we contribute, a society where experience is valued as highly as talent, energy, passion and all those other positives we hear so much about. In this vision, respectful interaction between generations will replace generation stereotyping and intergenerational resentments.

Three years ago, I was starting from a low point. Our culture is deeply ageist, and this has negative impacts on just about every aspect of the lives of older Australians, but especially the workforce, and social and economic inclusion.

After three years, how far have I got towards realising this vision?

It is hard to measure attitudinal change, especially over such a short period. I have been in the job three years and have two to go.

I think I can say however that in pursuit of this ambitious objective, issues like:

  • the unfairness and waste of age discrimination,
  • the realities of positive ageing,
  • and the benefits of intergenerational cooperation

are much higher up the national agenda than when I started.

And so they should be.

We cannot go on as if we are still living in 1909, the year the age pension was introduced in Australia, with an eligibility age of 65, but only 4 per cent living long enough to qualify. Now, about 80 per cent of all retired Australians draw full or part pension. The average life expectancy is already 80 for men and higher for women, and many of us will live well beyond the average. People here today should be planning to live to 90. Deloitte Access Economics estimates that by 2030 there will be over 5 million Australians aged 55-70.[1]

Such change brings challenges and opportunities. In my work I try to highlight the opportunities.

For example, as individuals, we need to plan for much longer working lives and longer retirements. This need provides major opportunities for financial planners, such as CPA members.

If business in general adapts to the implications of demographic change with customers, clients and staff, and responds to demands for new products and services from older consumers, they will prosper. Insurers for example must reassess their risk profiling, bring their actuarial assessments up to the present and develop products that meet the needs of older workers and older travellers. There is an affluent and growing market for such products, but we haven’t seen them yet.

Government must reconsider all policy settings – the age pension, superannuation, industrial relations, anti-discrimination, aged care and lifelong health, communications technology, and planning – just to name some.

At this stage, most of these challenges have not been met.

For myself there have been a few specific wins. Early in my term I helped persuade the government to lift the age restriction on the payment of superannuation guarantee. Now the age 70 bar is gone, and SG is paid to all workers regardless of age.

Free regular breast screening for cancer stopped at 69. Following my advocacy, access to the screening program now extends to women up to 75 years.

I was able to secure research funds to investigate for the first time the extent of age stereotyping in the Australian media, and the negative effects of those stereotypes on employers and the community generally. That report, Fact or Fiction, has provided a fruitful basis for consultations with media decision makers, the advertising industry, employers and recruiters, and change is following.

While I can’t specifically measure these changes, I can see them happening. I can point to a longish list of print media and radio programs adopting positive stories on older Australians as their core material, and coming to me, almost daily, for more.

I have just commissioned the first national prevalence survey on age discrimination in the workplace. We have had data on this damaging practice from various sources, including the ABS, but this new survey will provide the first national picture, reporting the experiences of people who have been discriminated against, and employers large and small.

It will provide a strong basis for better policy and for more positive action by employers and government. I hope this work will build on an earlier report I commissioned from Deloitte Access Economics. That study showed that an increase in the workforce participation of over 55s by 3 per cent would have an impact of $31 billion on the national economy. An increase of 5 per cent would yield $48 billion annually.

The Government announced in the recent Budget the intention to increase the age pension age to 70 by 2030. My response is that there is no point in altering these policy settings if we haven’t achieved attitudinal change in the community to support them. There is no point requiring people to work longer if age discrimination prevents them from getting a job. It is the aim of achieving the potential positives of longer working lives that underlies my focus on getting rid of age discrimination in the workplace. When we have done that, we will find many choosing to work to 70, without the stick of a later pension age.

Then there are the workforce skills issues. Business now has available to it the productivity benefits of the experience and maturity of large numbers of capable older employees. Given the skills shortages in our economy, and the very low birth-rate that means fewer young workers coming onto the market, the failure of business to use the talent pool of older workers is irrational and self-defeating.

In addition, business should grasp the market power of older Australians. Worldwide, 60-and-older consumers spent more than $8 trillion in 2010; by 2020, they are projected to spend $15 trillion.[2] Mature Australians hold more than 40 per cent of Australia’s net wealth[3] and over 50s are estimated to have a discretionary spending power of $218 billion.[4]

These days the nature of retirement offers huge business opportunities. Retirement these days is very different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. These days ‘retirement’ means any number of things; travelling, taking up second or third careers, volunteering, caring for grandchildren, living as active, healthy and contributing members of our community. All of the research to date points to this reality: older people are adopting a far wider and more varied lifestyle than the narrow, negative images we see so often in the media. Older Australians have challenged, reshaped and redefined older age and retirement, and the new realities offer endless opportunities for new products and services.

Businesses can leverage the skills and experience of older workers much more than they currently do.

What has to happen? What are the changes I advocate to employers?

First, create more inclusive workplaces and hiring practices. Over half of the age discrimination complaints we receive at the Human Rights Commission are related to employment,[5] and figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that for unemployed people aged 45 years and over the main difficulty in finding work was being “considered too old by employers”.[6]

Secondly, consider structural change of the workplace. Many older Australians would like to keep working but can’t because employers are unresponsive to their needs in terms of flexibility in the working day or the working week.

We note that 76 per cent of older workers point to flexible working arrangements as crucial in keeping them in the workforce,[7] and 60 per cent of those who are looking to retire would prefer to do so gradually.[8] The recent amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) empower older workers to request flexible working arrangements, but this provision on its own can’t bring about more inclusion of older workers. Employers large and small need to recognise the value of their mature employees and develop approaches that suit their particular businesses.

Employers should give thought to creating teams that flourish because of intergenerational cooperation. Would mentoring arrangements, opportunities for development at all career stages, succession planning and skills exchange enhance the performance of both younger and older staff members?

People who work longer are of course going to be better off and have more retirement savings. I have long been advocating the benefits of older Australians planning their finances and seeking the advice they need early.

To this end, last year I published a book called Your Rights at Retirement. This book is a guide to navigating all the decisions one might have to make in later life, however it has a strong focus on financial literacy and constantly urges people to get advice. The CPA gets several mentions as a point of contact when seeking out reputable financial advice.

The book has been a huge success, with copies distributed all over Australia. We on to our fourth reprint and it has recently been translated into Italian, Greek and Chinese. As a practical measure to assist older Australians, it is something of which I am quite proud.

As a society, we are getting older, much older than our grandparents’ generation, but the very nature of old age has changed. We are much healthier for many more years than our recent predecessors, and maintain all of our faculties and cognitive functions for longer. We are better educated, have had wider work experiences and the benefits of great social reforms like Medicare and superannuation. We are working longer and enjoying more active retirements.

Greater participation of older people is undoubtedly beneficial – to the economy, to workplaces, and for individuals themselves.

However, age discrimination in the workplace is still a huge problem. My focus, as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner has been to reveal this discrimination so that it may be directly addressed. This will continue to be my focus. I have set out for you today some of the specific changes I have achieved, but also how I am tackling the need for complete community change, with the research and other programs I have put in place.

These broader aims will continue to make up much of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission in age discrimination, for the next two years, and for as many years beyond that as it takes to achieve the vision - that is, a society where age is no barrier to respect, inclusion and opportunity.

I invite all of you in attendance today to assist me.



[1] Deloitte Access Economics, The Connected Workplace — War for talent in the digital economy, 2013, p. 13. At: (viewed 13 February 2014)
[2] A.T. Kearney, Understanding the Needs and Consequences of the Ageing Consumer, 2013, p. 5. At: (viewed 13 February 2014)
[3] G Stubbs, ‘Baby Boomers – the Greatest Untapped Opportunity for Marketers’, Mi9, 2013. At: (viewed 13 February 2014)
[4] D McTaggart, ‘Why Marketers Get It Wrong’, Your Life Choices, 17 January 2014. At: (viewed 13 February 2014)
[5] AHRC annual report, (viewed 10 February 2014)
[6] ABS, Long-term unemployment rises (media Release: 24 January 2012), 6222.0 – Job Search Experience, Australia, July 2011. At: (viewed 10 February 2014)
[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Older People and the Labour Market, 2010. At: (viewed 10 February 2014)
[8] National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre, Ageing Baby Boomers in Australia: Informing Actions for Better Retirement, August 2012, p. 5

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner