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From grey to gold—discussing age discrimination (2012)

Discrimination Age Discrimination

From grey to gold—discussing age discrimination

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

2012 Comcare National Conference
Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, Darling Harbour

20 September 2012

Acknowledge traditional owners – Gadigal of the Eora

I want to start my comments on older workers and mental health today by pointing to the ways in which the workplace is a potential site for social inclusion, but also if handled in the wrong way, for social exclusion.

I have been in my role as Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner for a year now, and over this time I have seen many examples of the ways in which the workplace can be either a protective or a destructive factor in the mental health and social well-being of older workers.

The Australian Government’s vision for social inclusion is ‘one in which all Australians feel valued and have the opportunity to participate fully in our society.’ This includes an opportunity to:

  • Learn by participating in education and training;
  • Work by participating in employment, in voluntary work and in family and caring;
  • Engage by connecting with people and using their local community’s resources; and
  • Have a voice so they can influence decisions that affect them.[1]

For those of us who are securely employed, working can and usually does aid our physical and emotional well-being and maintains our mental health. Being valued in our work and participating in processes and decisions that affect us creates a sense of social inclusion and connectedness.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the benefits of continuing to work as we age.

Age discrimination in the workforce and mental health impacts

The other side of this causal relationship between work and good health is what happens when people are forced out of work too early because of age discrimination.

Such an event produces various destructive effects. And it happens a lot; far too often.

Age discrimination in the work place is widespread and its effects so destructive that I have made employment discrimination the major focus of my work so far.

The negative impacts include pushing people into early retirement and financial insecurity, which in turn creates mental health problems.

A survey by the Financial Services Council, found that 35 percent of middle-income workers aged 50 and over said they felt discriminated against because of their age.[2]

The report found that almost three in ten older workers reported some form of discriminatory action, the most common being made redundant or laid off before others.[3] This view was backed up by employers, who noted that this was by far the most common form of discrimination.[4] The report also highlighted a lack of training opportunities, verbal abuse and inflexibility towards health and physical needs of older workers.[5]

Complaints to my own organisation, the Australian Human Rights Commission corroborate this picture of employment discrimination. So far this year, 65 percent of all age discrimination complaints have been employment focussed.

A growing body of psychological research is exploring the phenomenon of stereotype threat. You will be familiar with this concept.[6]

According to this research, the presence of negative age stereotypes in the workplace has a deleterious effect on older workers, including those with good reason to have confidence in their performance. Sensing negatives all around you undermines a person’s view of herself. What are these stereotypes about?

Many people have antiquated and prejudiced views of older workers as unable to do the job; as forgetful, short tempered, rigid and backward looking. Younger managers fear employing older workers because they think they may be difficult to manage. Myths prevail that older workers can’t learn new processes or manage technology. These are common stereotypes that limit the potential of the worker and drive workers out before their time.

When continually the butt of stereotyped attitudes an otherwise competent worker who needs to work may accept the stereotype, start believing she is too old to cope, find herself behaving in ways suggested by the stereotype and before long, she withdraws from work. When this happens you can easily imagine the distressed state of mind of this person, facing permanent unemployment with its financial and social hazards.

People who are unemployed have much higher levels of depression and mood disorders than people who are working. The prevalence of mood disorders in unemployed men is 26% and for unemployed women it is a huge 34%. This compared with men and women in full-time employment who have mood disorder rates at about 15%.[7]

Once unemployed it is especially hard for older people to re-join the workforce. According to the ABS, 18 percent of over 45s claim that their main difficulty in finding work is ‘being considered too old by employers’.[8]

Generally, the older the person, the more likely they are to be long-term unemployed. In 2010-11, 33% of unemployed people aged 55-64 years were long-term unemployed, compared with 13% of those aged 15-24.[9]

This is a terrible waste of human capital.

Australia’s workforce participation rates of older people are lower than they should be.

While we have close to 80% of people aged 44 to 55 in the workforce, this drops suddenly to 61% for people aged 55-64. For people 65 and over the rates are minimal.

Compare our rates of 61% for the 55-64 age group, with New Zealand and Sweden, where 74% and 72% of people in this age cohort are employed.[10]

Overall, we are ranked 8th out of the 34 OECD countries in the workforce participation of over 55s.[11]

In the recruitment context, age discrimination has been described as ‘systemic’.[12]

Recruiters begin to weed out people aged 45 and older. Despite the existence of the Age Discrimination Act 2004 we see job advertisements seeking applicants who are ‘young and dynamic’. We see practices of culling applications based on age and not skill. When candidates do not provide their age on the CV they are asked ‘what year did you graduate’ or ‘how old are your children’.

We have seen documented cases of older workers denied access to training and promotion opportunities or targeted for redundancy. We hear examples of age-based bullying that have become accepted workplace culture. We hear of workers with caring responsibilities for frail parents who are reluctant to seek flexible work arrangements because they fear forced redundancy.

All of us have work to do to change these damaging and wrong perceptions of older workers, and to improve the workplace culture so that it acknowledges and celebrates the strengths of workers throughout the life cycle.

Protective factors of work and positive impacts on mental health and well-being

There is plenty to celebrate. Despite Australia’s relatively poor participation rates we are working longer than we ever have before - we are healthier and fitter for work than we have ever been.

According to Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, ‘Work is your own personal cognitive training program because it keeps you challenged and engaged. Through the whole of the lifespan if you compare people who are employed with those who are unemployed, their mental and physical health is better.’[13]

We are living in amazing times. In terms of the history of the human race, whole populations, not just individuals are living longer, much longer than ever before. This dramatic increase in longevity has not been gradual. Spurred on by modern medicine and hygiene practices, it has been rapid.

In 1909 when the Age Pension was introduced in Australia, 96% of people died before they reached pension age at 65.

Now not only do most of the population reach 65, (currently, 75% of men and close to 85% of women[14]) but the average life expectancy today is 84 for women and nearly 80 for men, and it is increasing every year.[15]

Instead of the 4% of the population being age pensioners in 1909, over 80% of Australians aged 65 and older draw full or part pension and will continue to do so for a long time, 20 or thirty years.[16]

These demographic changes are well documented, much reported, and should be widely recognized in public policy, employment practices and community values. But negative stereotypes hang on damaging not only the health of individuals but the strength of our economy.

Reasons for retirement

Of Australia’s retirees, 10% of men and 9% of women report that their reasons for retiring were that they were 'retrenched or dismissed or that there was no work available'.[17]

The average age of Australians who retired in the last five years was 61.4 years –these people are retiring before they are eligible for the Age Pension.[18] Presumably they are drawing down their super, leaving less to live on as they age. If they have no super or other savings they would be trying to get by with the very low Newstart payment.

Given that the Age Pension is available at 65, and set to rise to 67 by 2023, we must find opportunities where people can stay in work longer.

Employer actions to retain older workers

Some employers in the corporate sector as well as in the public sector are actively addressing age discrimination and making valued older workers a part of their business plans.

Forward-thinking employers have been scrutinising their older workforce and asking: what is the age mix of the employees; where are older workers placed in the organisation; what skills do they have; do they need upskilling? what are their intentions about retirement?

They find in some instances that older workers would like to transition to retirement by changing their role in the company, perhaps exchanging high pressure tasks for ones with fewer hours but with new mentoring responsibilities. Older workers given the chance to consider may accept that they need an upgrading of skills particularly in new roles or with new technology.

Qantas is a company that has discovered the benefits of re-training loyal employees. In 2009 Qantas re-trained over 100 employees otherwise due for redundancy to become Aircraft Maintenance Engineers for its new fleet of A380s. Qantas had been having difficulty in recruiting workers to do the maintenance on the new passenger aircraft. After trying to recruit from within Australia and overseas, Qantas decided to look to its existing workforce.

The company offer tailored retraining to selected experienced employees who were likely to be made redundant. Seventy percent of the re-trainees were over the age of 45. The result was highly beneficial to the company and to the workers.

Bunnings is another pin-up organisation for the older worker. Bunnings has recruited about 2000 staff aged over 55 in the past five years, including two men in their early 80s. Most are tradesmen or building workers who have retired or are no longer able to do the arduous work of the trade.

According to John Gillam the CEO, the rates of older workers at Bunnings are continuing to increase as retirees return to the workforce either because they were bored at home or they needed to shore up their finances in the wake of the GFC. A priority for Bunnings has been the retaining of workers who are past normal retirement age.


These are just two examples that show where they recognise the value to their organisation, strategic employers can and will develop ways to accommodate older workers.

Governments, unions and employer group initiatives to employ older workers

In recent years, government departments, unions and employer groups have developed initiatives to encourage employers recruit and support older workers.

ComCare has been part of this through its work on health and safety and through encouraging workplace culture that is preventative of injury and supportive of employees to get back to work.

The Australian Government along with Australian Industry Group recently developed Experience+ - a guide to assist employers to recruit and retain workers over the age of 45.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has produced Employ outside the Box – a guide directed to employers that outlines The Business Case for Recruiting and Retaining Mature Age Workers. This publication does some myth-busting about older workers, including dispelling the myth that older workers take more sick leave and are more prone to accidents.



Government policies and laws that make it hard to continue working beyond 65

Despite these positive steps the workplace still includes policies and laws prevent people from working as long as they would like.

We still have, in most jurisdictions age limits on workers compensation, income insurance, and professional driver’s license requirements.

In most jurisdictions, the income replacement part of workers comp is cut off or limited at 65. If injured at work, older workers are covered for medical expenses, but not the income replacement aspect.

Why the age cut off? Where’s the evidence that older workers cost more? The ABS Work Related Injuries report found that people aged 65 years and over recorded the lowest rate of work-related injuries and illnesses of all age groups with 30 per 1,000 people.[19]

The highest rates of work-related injury or illness were in the 45 to 49 year age group at 72 per 1,000 people.[20]

If injured workers past 65 are forced onto the age pension by the cessation of compensation payments, the chances of rehabilitation and return to work are almost wiped out.

And there is no joy for older workers who want to protect themselves through income protection insurance. Income insurance cuts out in the early to mid-60s, with some exceptions where coverage is provided to 70.

The trades industries tend to impose a younger cut-off point at 60 for insurance, with some exceptions.[21]

A further problem can be the restrictions and obligations that are imposed on older drivers of private vehicles and commercial vehicles.

Who is addressing these discriminatory policies and laws?

As well as my own efforts as Age Discrimination Commissioner, a number of major initiatives are underway.

  • A project of Safe Work Australia to encourage the states and territories to harmonise aspects of the worker’s compensation legislation.
  • An Australian Law Reform Commission Review of Commonwealth legislation that prevents people over 45 from staying in the workforce.
  • A project of the Attorney-General to consolidate the five anti-discrimination Acts into a single law.
  • The continuing work of the Insurance Reform Advisory Group (IRAG) to examine insurance issues with industry and stakeholders.

I am sure you are all aware of Safe Work Australia’s work to investigate and report on national consistency for the definition of retirement age.

It will be interesting to watch the progress of this work in the light of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Commonwealth laws that discriminate on the basis of age.

I have been appointed a part-time Commissioner to this Inquiry which has produced its first report, an Issues paper. A Discussion Paper is due for public release later this month and I invite all of you to contribute to this discussion.

Consolidation of Five Anti-Discrimination Acts

The Australian Government is currently looking to consolidate the 5 federal anti-discrimination laws into a single law, the harmonisation or consolidation project.

The Attorney-General’s Department is developing an exposure draft of the legislation and I expect we will see this soon.

In our Commission’s submission to the Consolidation of Laws Inquiry, we recommended that the beneficial and best practice features of existing anti-discrimination legislation should not only be maintained, but as far as possible applied to other grounds of discrimination. We argued for consistency between Commonwealth discrimination law and the non-discrimination provisions of the Fair Work Act; and between Commonwealth discrimination law and areas of best practice in State and Territory anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.

We also argued for a reduction in the number of exemptions in the Acts and for exemptions to be more narrowly confined.

Measures to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and consolidate them into a single law have the potential to make it simpler for individuals and for employers to understand that age, sex, race, and disability discrimination are all unlawful.

The elimination of discrimination including age discrimination in the workplace brings economic benefits. I recently commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to establish the benefits to the economy that would flow from greater participation of older people in the workforce.

The figures are astounding.

With just a 3% increase in participation by over 55s, we should see an extra $33 billion annual boost to the national economy.[22]

With a five percent increase in participation, we would see a $48 billion national economy impact. This $48 billion would be in addition to the $55 billion currently anticipated with the current quite slow trend of increasing participation.

The imperative in terms of our national economy could hardly be stronger.


We need to get rid of the ‘too old to work’ stereotypes in this country.

We need to do it to accommodate and support a vastly changing demographic.

We need to value all individuals in our society in ways that are socially inclusive.

A discrimination free workplace would improve the mental health of all who participate.

For the sake of our mental health, of our physical and social well-being we must be able to make choices about how we live and work as we age - without discrimination, without the negative stereotypes of the older worker, and without the policy barriers that unfairly reduce our working years.

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

Thank you.


[1] Australian Government, Social Inclusion, Australian Government Website, 30 June 2011. At (viewed 18 September 2012).
[2] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13. At: (viewed 12 June 2012).
[3] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13. At: (viewed 12 June 2012).
[4] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13. At: (viewed 12 June 2012).
[5] Westfield and Wright, Attitudes to Older Workers – prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p 13. At: (viewed 12 June 2012).
[6] C. von Hippel, J. Henry, E. Kalokerinos, Stereotype Threat and Mature Age Workers
The University of Queensland in partnership with National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre
December, 2011.
[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing of Australians: Summary of Result, Canberra, 2008. At (viewed 17 September 2012).
[8] ABS, Older People and the Labour Market, 4102,0 – Australian Social trends, Sep 2010. At: (viewed 27 January 2012)
[9] ABS, Long-term unemployment, 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sept 2011. At: (viewed 7 February 2012)
[10]Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, January 2012. At (viewed 6 September 2012); OECD Better policies for better lives, Key Employment Statistics, 9 July 2012 (viewed 6 September 2012).
[11] OECD, How do OECD labour markets perform? Employment to population ratios, Older workers
as a percentage of population aged 55-64‌, 2010. At,3746,en_2649_37457_43221014_1_1_1_37457,00.html#erate (viewed 18 June 2012).
[12] 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, p5.
[13] Is retirement bad for our brain? Sydney Morning Herald, January 31, 2012. At (viewed 6 September 2012).
[14] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia’s Health 2012, At (viewed 6 September 2012).
[15] ABS, Life Expectancy Trends – Australia, 4102.0 – Australian Social trends, March 2011. At: (viewed 6 September 2012).
[16] Aged and Community Services Australia, An Ageing Australia, Fact Sheet 1 July 2011, p.2. At (viewed 6 September 2012).
[17] ABS, 6238.0 - Retirement and Retirement Intentions, Australia, July 2010 to June 2011, 2011. At (viewed 18 September 2012).
[18] ABS, 6238.0 - Retirement and Retirement Intentions, Australia, July 2010 to June 2011, 2011. At (viewed 18 September 2012).
[19] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6324.0 - Work-Related Injuries, Australia, 2009-10, 2010. At per cent20Features32009-10?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6324.0&issue=2009-10&num=&view= (viewed 1 November 2010).
[20] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Work-related injury or illness down, men still at most risk, 6324.0 - Work-Related Injuries, Australia, 2009-10. (Media Release, 13 December 2010). At per cent20Release12009-10?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6324.0&issue=2009-10&num=&view= (viewed 1 November 2011).
[21] Trades Recognition Australia, Australian Recognised Trade Certificate Criteria and Guidelines, (2011). At: (viewed 26 September 2011).
[22] Increasing participation among older workers: The grey army advances (viewed 6 September 2012).


The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner