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Demography is not destiny (2012)

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Demography is not destiny

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

The Brotherhood of St Laurence lunchtime seminar


8 March 2012

First let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

Why did the parliament last year create my position, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission?

The answer is the government was aware, and indeed the entire parliament, including all parties and independents, recognised that age discrimination is blight on our chosen values of equality and fairness.

It is a serious social and economic problem, one that called for the focus a designated Commissioner could bring: to reduce its impact, to better protect individuals by wider use of the Age Discrimination Act 2004 and other laws, and perhaps most fundamentally to challenge the societal and community prejudices that give rise to damaging age discrimination.

Age discrimination does much more than make older people feel uncomfortable; it effectively limits their life chances. Age discrimination can erode one’s economic status and one’s ability to participate in society.

Age discrimination causes poverty and mental illness.

When age discrimination has these impacts, age discrimination is a human rights issue.

The Australian Government has a responsibility to address the problem of older people and poverty. Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights make reference to the right of older people to an adequate standard of living and security in old age.[1]

The provision of Age Pension meets this obligation; but along with meeting basic social security needs government responsibility includes supporting access to employment.

Employment-specific human rights conventions contain provisions relating to the rights of older people to career guidance and training without discrimination.[2]

The evidence is there, and mounting continually, that such human rights for older people are often ignored.

During the 2010 – 2011 year, the Australian Human Rights Commission received 724 complaints related to age discrimination, and 66 percent of these related to employment.[3]

A recent study by the Financial services Council, reported that 35 percent of middle-income workers over the age of 50 claimed they felt discriminated against because of their age.[4] These claims were echoed by employers in the survey.

We are experiencing what is called an ageing society; that is the proportion of older retired people to younger working people increases each year, and we are all living longer. In this environment, age discrimination in the workplace is a growing problem as well as a damaging one.

A narrow interpretation of the meaning of these demographic changes has led to a catastrophising of our demography.

All too frequently predications of the ageing population creating unmanageable demands on a shrinking public purse are made. These predictions in turn provoke further negative responses, and reinforce age discrimination.

From the “demography as disaster” perspective, older people are seen entirely in negative terms. They are accused of causing an immense drain on our economic and other resources and in particular predicted to become an unbearable burden on future workers.

It is my job to challenge all of this.

My theme in doing is to announce:

Demography is not destiny.

By that I mean that while we can and should recognise the dramatic demographic changes of our times, we can also put in place new attitudes and practices that will prevent the catastrophe.

With different, more imaginative and fairer attitudes to older people, we will not only reduce the predicted burdens, but we will release the huge positive potential of our ever increasing numbers of older people, to the benefit of our economy and of civil society.

The key to this positive approach is to make it possible for older workers to remain in employment as long as they are willing and able.

Before I set out how am working towards this objective, I will discuss further the facts of the increasing poverty among older people, poverty resulting directly from individuals being forced out of paid work too early, by age discrimination.

In 2009 the OECD report found that one in four Australians over the age of 65 live below the OECD poverty threshold.[5]

In 2008, Australia ranked 13th out of the 34 OECD countries in a study that measured labour force participation rates in the over 55s.[6] One out of three Australians over 55 years is in the labour force which amounts to approximately 1.9 million people.[7] 3.3 million Australians aged over 55 are not working, including people who are retired and people who are unemployed and seeking work.[8]

National Seniors Australia estimates that nearly two million Australians aged 55 and over are willing to work, could be encouraged to work, or are unemployed and looking for work. National Seniors reports that ‘not using the skills and experience of older Australians costs the Australian economy $10.8 billion a year’.[9]

In 2007 the Diversity Council Australia conducted research into retirement and found that one third of all retired respondents would be prepared to return to work and 57 percent of retirees aged 60 years or under would be prepared to return to work if they were offered the right job.[10]

While some older Australians are voluntarily retired, and rightfully enjoying their retirement years, many older Australians are unemployed years before they reach pension age.

One third of unemployed people aged between 55 and 64 years are long-term unemployed. This long-term rate is more than double the rate for younger age groups.[11]

The Brotherhood of St Laurence report, Workforce participation and non-participation among baby boomers in Australia, found that for many older people, unemployment or early retirement is not a personal choice.

One out of five people aged between 45 and 64 in 2008 were not working because they had either been forced out, confined by disabilities or by carer duties. Over half of all 60-64 year old Australians are not in jobs. This is before the ‘standard’ retirement age of 65 – the age at which men can receive the Age Pension – and shortly to be the age for women too.[12] By 2023, the eligible age for the age pension will be 67 for men and women.

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlight the pressures that face mature age workers in trying to stay in or re-enter the workforce. For unemployed people aged 45 years and over the main difficulty in finding work (accounting for 18 per cent of cases) was reported as being “considered too old by employers”.[13]

Australian employers need to make it possible for people to remain in the workforce for many reasons:

  • the Australian economy requires it;
  • without older workers we face a severe workplace skill shortage;
  • as we are living a generation longer than our grandparents our working lives should reflect this increased longevity
  • working for longer is the most important protective factor against poverty, and
  • eminent medical authorities have pointed to the health benefits to individuals of maintaining employment. Professor Ian Hickey, from the University of Sydney, was reported saying that the mental and physical health of people in work is better than those out of work, and this holds true at all ages.[14]

Deloitte recently produced data to show that the pool of 55-70 year olds provided the biggest unused pool of available workers, and pointed out that if business ignored this pool they would face serious skills shortages.[15]

There is no doubt that allowing all of these capable people to be wasted contributes to poverty, housing stress and homelessness.

The 2006 Australian Census showed marked increases in the number of older people who were homeless since the previous one. Over 18,000 people aged 55 or over were homeless on Census night in 2006; 4,000 more than on Census night in 2001.[16]

Seventeen percent of the homeless population of Australia is made up of people aged over 55.[17]

Increases in the costs of rent have dramatically increased the housing stress on lower income earners, including people on the Age Pension.

The Age Pension

The ABS reports that Government pensions and allowances are by far the most common source of personal retirement income for both men and women. Two-thirds of retirees rely on the Age Pension as their main source of income.[18] Fifty-eight percent of female age pensioners and 54 percent of male pensioners are paid at the full pension rate, meaning that these retirees have limited or no other source of income.[19]

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research have updated the Henderson Poverty Line to bring it to the June Quarter of 2011.[20] According to this research the poverty line for a single person not working and paying for housing is $724.04[21] and for couples it is $1025.60[22].

According to this assessment, single pensioners are living $25 above the poverty line each fortnight and couples are $100 above.

Superannuation and retirement income

Of Australians aged 65-69 years, 64 percent of females and 43 percent of males had no superannuation and these proportions increase to 87 percent of females and 69 percent of males in the 70 years and over age group.[23]

At this stage it is clear that a lot of people, both men or women if forced into retirement in their fifties, or even in their sixties will face poverty, ill health and even homelessness.

The intended benefits of our national superannuation arrangements will be realised more fully in future years, but this will be by workers currently in their middle years and working. For older people out of work right now, superannuation in most cases will not provide the answer to how these people can enjoy reasonable economic security.

For those willing and able, the answer must be more paid work.

What is stopping these people, something like 2 million of them, from earning a living?

Discriminatory attitudes and practices mean that workers close to 50 and older are not promoted, they are denied the training needed to keep their skills up to date; they are refused the chance to reduce hours or work part time. When a downsizing is implemented those in their 50’s are often the first out. Once unemployed, their chances of finding a new job are very poor. Long term unemployment statistics show this beyond doubt.

Recruitment is often skewed against the over 45’s, and recruiters are not usually in a position to argue with their clients’ requirements.

Often at 50 or even younger, and certainly as you approach what used to be the sudden death age of 65, the message that you are not wanted is loud and clear. This attitude undermines the confidence and drive of otherwise confident older workers, who sometimes as a result self-select for early retirement when they can ill afford to do so.

Reinforcing this bias against older workers, we still have age bars, cut off points in workers compensation and income insurance.

Workers comp payments in most jurisdictions cease around 65. Most income insurance policies are not offered to anyone over 65.

So even if a worker has been able to maintain a job after this age, there is no income protection in case of illness or accident.

All of these factors combine to waste the talents and energies of millions.

But, none of these factors is set in concrete

What can be done to change them?

Because of the evidence that age discrimination deprives capable people of jobs, because other evidence shows that the consequences of this include poverty, illness, even homelessness, and because the needs of unwillingly unemployed people can only be met from the public purse, I have made ridding the workplace of age discrimination my top priority.

My strategy is to tackle all the obstacles, legal, policy and attitudinal standing in the way of a person being assessed for a job in terms of capacity to do the job. Age as such should be no part of the consideration.

I can already report some progress. In relation to workers comp some States have taken positive steps. Queensland, and more recently WA, have removed the age limits on their schemes. All other States and Territories and the Commonwealth should do the same and I have started what seem to be constructive discussions.

Insurance companies could be encouraged to extend their age coverage of workers - based on health and well-being measures - and not on age limits. Again I have started this advocacy with the industry and found strong interest from the relevant commonwealth minister.

Conscious of the role of government as employer and provider of crucial programs and services, along with others I proposed a national audit of all commonwealth national laws and policies that block older people from workforce participation.

The Attorney General has now announced this work as a reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission, and appointed me a part time commissioner to the ALRC to assist in this review.

I have started work on a project to help older Australians towards financial literacy.

In August this year I will host a major national employer conference, the purpose of which will be to produce new data on older workers and economic potential, and to showcase the strategies of those employers who are already acting to remove age discrimination, to make changes to encourage older workers to extend their working lives and even to hire older workers.

I am pleased to report that I find a lot of support in the community, among employers and even in the media for all these plans.

Age discrimination is a scourge on our society and a practice that has no place in a democracy dedicated to fairness and equality.

In defeating age discrimination we will not only advance the exercise of basic human rights of older Australians, we also enrich our society and grow our economy.

[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, art 25 (1). At: (viewed 6 March 2012)
[2] Human Resources Development Convention C142, 1975, art(s) 1,2,3. At: (viewed 6 March 2012)
[3] Australian Human Rights Commission Annual Report 2010 – 2011 At: (1 February 2012).
[4] Financial Services Council, Attitudes to older workers, January 2012, pp. 4-5. At

[5] OECD, Australia, Highlights from OECD Pensions at a Glance 2009. At: (viewed 6 March 2012)
[6] National Seniors Australia, 2009, Australia well behind on mature age employment. At: (viewed 24 January 2012)
[7] ABS, Older People and the Labour Market, 4102.0 – Australian Social trends, Sep 2010. At: (viewed 7 February 2012)
[8] ABS, Latest Findings, 4914.0.55.001 – Age Matters, June 2011. At:!OpenDocument (viewed 7 February 2012)
[9] National Seniors Australia Productive Ageing Centre, Still Putting In, Measuring the Economic and Social Contributions of Older Australians, May 2009. At: (viewed 23 February 2012).
[10] Diversity Council Australia, Grey Matters: Engaging Mature Age Workers, 2007. At (viewed 23 February 2012).
[11] ABS, Long-term unemployment, 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sep 2011. At: (viewed 7 February 2012)
[12] Brotherhood of St Laurence, H Gong & J McNamara, Workforce participation and non-participation among baby boomers in Australia: a profile from HILDA data. At: (viewed 7 February 2012)
[13] ABS, Long-term unemployment rises (media Release: 24 January 2012), 6222.0 – Job Search Experience, Australia, July 2011. At: (viewed 17 February 2012)
[14] Paula Goodyer, ‘Is retirement bad for our brain?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 2012. At: (viewed 6 March 2012)
[15] Deloitte, ‘Building the Lucky Country: Business imperatives for a prosperous Australia – Where is your next worker?’, At: (viewed 6 March 2012)
[16] Department of Families, Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, The Road Home, Homelessness White Paper 2008, At (viewed 24 October 2011).
[17] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, unpublished table from ABS Census 2001 and 2006 data. The Road Home Homelessness White paper At:
(viewed 31 January 2012)
[18] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Retirement and Retirement Intentions, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, March 2009. At: (viewed 9 December 2011).
[19] National Foundation for Australian Women, Submission to the Henry Tax Inquiry: Retirement incomes, 2009, p. 6.
[20] Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Poverty Lines Australia, June 2011, The University of Melbourne. At (viewed 2 February 2012).
[21] Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Poverty Lines Australia, June 2011, The University of Melbourne. At (viewed 2 February 2012).
[22] Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Poverty Lines Australia, June 2011, The University of Melbourne. At (viewed 2 February 2012).

[23] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Superannuation, 4125.0 - Gender Indicators, Australia, Jul 2011. At (viewed 23 February 2012).

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner