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Ageism and countering the effects of COVID-19

Age Discrimination

Ageism and countering the effects of COVID-19 on Older Australians at work

Speech by Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson.

I would like to thank the Diversity Council of Australia Chief Executive Officer, Lisa Annese, for inviting me to speak and for introducing me today.

I wish to acknowledge the Kulin Nation peoples as the traditional owners of the land from which I speak and pay respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

I have made it my priority to address three major manifestations of age discrimination—elder abuse in the community, older women's risk of homelessness and age discrimination and the workplace.

I have been monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on my three focus areas – in particular, to ensure that ageism is not the result, whether as a direct driver of behaviours or as the indirect, unintended consequence of public policy discussions and implementation.

A recent report by the UK Centre for Ageing Better, entitled ‘Doddery but dear? examining age-related stereotypes’[i] has one of the best definitions of ageism I have come across – and I have had an active interest in this field for many decades:

"Ageism is a combination of how we think about age (stereotypes), how we feel about age (prejudice) and how we behave in relation to age (discrimination)."

As Age Discrimination Commissioner, one of my roles is to challenge ageist stereotypes, which lead to prejudice and, in turn, can result in age discrimination.

Age discrimination and the value of older employees

When it comes to the workplace, age discrimination can occur at the point of recruitment, as well as in relation to opportunities for training, promotion and flexible work practices—it can also affect how strategies around retirement are approached.

As Australia's population ages and our health span—the number of healthy years in older age—increases, along with lifespan, organisations need to be prepared and have strategies in place for employing and retaining older employees.

This is becoming more relevant as we see the workforce impacts of COVID-19. There are barriers to employing older workers. Unfortunately, age discrimination is a significant problem in Australia.

The report of the third joint Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Human Resources Institute survey of human resources professionals, ‘Employing and Retaining Older Workers’ was released this month. This is a summary of some of the key findings. The full report can be found on the Australian Human Resources Institute website.

The report found that there is a satisfying ongoing drop in the number of organisations who say they ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ have an age above which they are reluctant to recruit – down from 51.6% in 2014 to 30.3% in 2018, then a further reduction to 26.8% in 2021. However, most of these changes were due to an increase in those who answered ‘maybe’, rather than ‘definitely not’ or ‘probably not’.

It was heartening to see an increase of 13.8% since 2014 in the number of people who recognise that the departure of older workers causes a loss of key skills or knowledge. It is unfortunate that, at the same time, there has been little or no increase in organisations who capture corporate knowledge as older workers transition out of the workplace.

It is also concerning that the perception of what constitutes an ‘older’ worker has shifted to a younger age over the three surveys. We saw a marked increase in those selecting 51-55 (from 10.8% in 2018 to 16.9% in the current survey). At the same time, there was an 8% drop in those selecting 61-65 as ‘older’.

Age discrimination continues and it is widespread.

Frameworks preventing age discrimination

I want to mention briefly the formal frameworks in Australia relevant to age discrimination. The National Age Discrimination Act was passed in 2004, making it unlawful to treat a person unfairly, because of their age, in different areas of public life. The Australian Human Rights Commission Act (1986) allows the Commission to investigate individual complaints of discrimination, including age discrimination.

The Commission’s Willing to Work[ii] inquiry confirmed the results of our earlier national prevalence survey of age discrimination in the Australian workplace, which reported that one in four (27%) people over the age of 50 had recently experienced age discrimination at work.

This Inquiry heard repeatedly that older staff are targeted for redundancies during periods of economic downturn.

In the context of COVID-19, we need to be sure that policies and strategies to respond to the workplace challenges we are facing do not result in direct or indirect age discrimination – both for our youngest and our oldest workers.

Age discrimination in the workforce and COVID-19

Australians are increasingly working to older ages[iii].. In 2019:

  • 75% of people aged 55-59 participated in the labour force (working or looking for work) – this is up from 70% in 2009 and 60% in 1999.
  • 59% of those aged 60–64 years participated in the workforce – up from 50% in 2009 and 33% in 1999.
  • 20% of people over 70 did some paid work.

I don’t want to see these gains derailed by COVID-19, as we still have a long way to go.

Pre-COVID-19 unemployment data showed that once older workers become unemployed, they face much greater difficulty finding subsequent employment compared with younger age groups. On average, younger people (aged 15-44) are unemployed for 45 weeks, compared with 76 weeks for people aged 55+.[iv]

A Parliamentary Budget Office paper released in September 2020[v] found that employment data for older women was worsening before the pandemic. In 2001, women over 50 made up 4.9% of all Jobseeker (formerly NewStart) recipients – in 2019, they made up 20% of Jobseeker recipients – highlighting the trend that was appearing where older people were exiting unemployment benefits to the Age Pension, rather than a job. Age discrimination is one of the contributing factors behind this data – for example, older women working in customer-facing industries such as retail or tourism are being passed over for younger candidates.

During 2020, Australian Bureau of Statistics data [vi] on the employment impacts of COVID-19 highlight that our youngest and oldest workers are the two age cohorts bearing the brunt of unemployment due to the pandemic. Across age groups, women's employment levels have also been affected disproportionately by the pandemic.[vii]

I want to mention that younger workers also experience age discrimination in the workplace - for example, not employing younger workers because of assumptions that they will move on quickly to another job.

The 2021 joint Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Human Resources Institute report, ‘Employing and Retaining Older Workers’, also found that 57.7% of older workers have had difficulty gaining employment or being retained as an employee during COVID-19.

Busting some myths about older workers

Stereotypes and myths about older employees are still common and need to be challenged.

  • ‘Older employees aren’t committed’—research also shows that older employees may be your most loyal employees. For example, a 2013 Australian study showed workers 45 and over were 2.6 times less likely to have left their job in the past year than their younger colleagues.
  • Older people are not up-to-date with technology – an Office of the e-Safety Commissioner report, ‘Understanding the digital behaviours of older Australians’,[viii] found that approximately 70 per cent of older Australians use the internet multiple times a day.
  • Research shows that older adults tend to score higher on ‘crystallised intelligence’[ix]—wisdom, ‘getting the gist’ and verbal reasoning. A 2013 Australian Institute of Management study[x] found older and younger employees contribute equally to the workplace, although possibly in different ways.
  • ‘You get more stupid as you age’­—a 2012 Monash University and Australian Institute of Management study[xi]  found overall there is no justification for differentiating older employees based on their intelligence, problem-solving solving or leadership ability.
  • ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’­—recent Benevolent Society research[xii] indicates many Australians think it’s better to train young people, believing that older Australians are less capable of learning new skills. However, older employees are generally keen to upskill or reskill, especially when offered meaningful training opportunities
  • Older employees ‘hog jobs’—this is known as the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy, disproved by numerous reputable studies. The number of jobs is not finite, and there are considerable economic benefits in keeping people who are willing and able to work employed for longer – it’s good for individuals (provides a sense of purpose and income), businesses (crystallised intelligence, corporate history) and the economy.

Despite overwhelming research to dispel these myths, they still linger. We need to foster a cultural change about older employees. Human resources professionals, managers and decision-makers in leadership roles need to facilitate this change.

I ask those of you participating today to consider what your organisation is doing and can do to expand your inclusion policies to support a multigenerational workplace.

What older employees want

The needs of older employees are often the same as for other employees.

They value employment that is stimulating, stretches them, makes full use of their skills and experience and offers opportunities for social contact. They value being able to pass their knowledge on to others and appreciate an open, inclusive workplace culture. they value raining and flexible work opportunities—often for travel, caring responsibilities or a transition to retirement through part-time work.

People who think their work matters and makes a difference are more likely to remain in employment, whatever their age.

Promoting flexible work as ‘business as usual’ for employees of all ages helps avoid stigma connected to ageing.

Teamwork also matters—older employees are more likely to want to work in teams, collaborate with colleagues or have contact with clients or members of the public. Older employees want to be managed well as individuals as well as in teams.

More Australians want to work longer and retire later, often in stages. Of course, not all employees in any age group want the same things. While many older employees may want flexible work conditions, some are building their careers and want more work rather than less.

My view is that keeping channels of communication open, discussing future plans earlier rather than later and promoting the value of a multigenerational workforce can all play a part in productivity and loyalty of staff.

If your organisation is not already doing so, you might consider collecting data on your older employees (now 45 and over) – both existing and new employees – so you know the state of play and are well-placed to develop the right strategies for your circumstances.

Organisations can build their capability in age management - this involves revising formal policies to ensure there is no unconscious bias and no age barriers for older workers to join, and no incentives for them to leave.

Organisations can work to update the attitudes among their staff to enable them to be positive about hiring and retaining older employees and become proactive in realising the benefits of a multigenerational workforce.

This requires leadership commitment as well as an implementation strategy.

In formal policies, it is worth considering whether your organisation has:

  1. A transition to a retirement program to encourage older employees to stay a few years longer – as I said, starting earlier rather than later?
  2.  Unconscious or other incentives for older employees to leave? 
  3. A program to capture the tacit and specialist knowledge and skills of older employees? It is good to see that the 2021 joint Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Human Resources Institute survey report also noted an increase of 13.8% since 2014 in the number of respondents who recognise that the departure of older workers causes a loss of key skills or knowledge. It is unfortunate that there has not been an accompanying increase in the same time period of organisations who capture corporate knowledge formally when older workers transition out of the workforce. 
  4. Reskilling opportunities for older employees to transition to a less demanding or less time-consuming role, should they wish? 
  5. Data collection on how many employees are over 50 and how many have been employed in the last year.
  6.  Mechanisms to review training and development needs and opportunities for all employees? 
  7. Strategies to ensure line managers encourage employees of all ages to participate in training and development.
  8. Opportunities to talk about career pathways? 
  9. Long-service awards and recognition?

With five generations in the workplace currently, at the same time, it is important to have strategies for managing multigenerational teams. Some examples of successful strategies include:

  • Two-person teams, with one younger and one older employee.
  • Creativity in job-sharing, for example, a younger person and an older person sharing one job to facilitate varying reasons for both wanting a flexible, part-time role.
  • Intergenerational learning programs and skill transfers.
  • Reverse mentoring, where younger employees teach older employees.
  • Cross-mentoring, where an older and younger employee mentor each other in different areas.

Just as there is evidence around there being more women on boards accompanied by companies being more successful, it would be interesting to see research on whether companies who implement positive programs to foster multigenerational teams also see an increase in markers such as increased productivity and reduced staff turnover.

As chair of the Federal Government Collaborative Partnership on Mature Age Employment[xiii] I have been advocating for the creation of strategies to assist older workers when it comes to the COVID-19 recovery phase. The Partnership is working cooperatively, using data and the breadth of knowledge and experience of the Collaborative members, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industries, to increase the likelihood of older workers having appropriate work in their local area.

The Partnership created a website, the Mature Age Hub, to provide assistance to both employers and mature-age jobseekers and workers. I encourage organisations to utilise the tools and information. This website outlines a number of federal government employment programs that are worth exploring.


As I have mentioned earlier, the groups most affected by the downturn include young people, older people and women across age groups. Any strategies we develop to support employment must take this into account, as we grapple with the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

Generational age-based inclusion strategies benefit both employers and employees. There are well-being and job satisfaction benefits for employees who feel their knowledge, skills and contributions are valued. For the organisation, the flow-on effect is reduced absenteeism and turnover, with the associated reduction in costs related to recruitment.

I would like to hear from any of you who have innovative programs involving the employment of older workers.

I wish to thank the Diversity Council of Australia again for including a focus on diversity across age groups as part of today’s discussions.

Thank you.

[i] Centre for Ageing Better UK, Doddery but Dear? Examining age-related stereotypes. At: (viewed 18 April 2021.)

[ii] Australian Human Rights Commission, Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)

[v] Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Budget Office paper, Jobseeker Payment: Understanding economic and policy trends affecting Commonwealth expenditure, Report no. 03/2020. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)

[vii] ANU, Centre for Social Research and Methods, Biddle, N, Gray, M, Jahromi & Marasinghe, D, Changes in paid and unpaid activities during the COVID-19 pandemic: Exploring labour supply and labour demand. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)

[viii] Office of the e-Safety Commissioner, ‘Understanding the digital behaviours of older Australians’. At: (viewed 23 April 2021.)

[ix] Department of Management, Monash University and Australian Institute of Management

Australian Institute of Management, Engaging and Retaining Older Workers: Discussion Paper. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)

[xi] Department of Management, Monash University and Australian Institute of Management

Australian Institute of Management, Engaging and Retaining Older Workers: Discussion Paper. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)

[xii] The Benevolent Society, The drivers of ageism – Foundational research to inform a national advocacy campaign tackling ageism and its impacts in Australia September 2017. At: (viewed 10 April 2021.)