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National Press Club speech - Susan Ryan

Discrimination Age Discrimination

“The ageing revolution is not over”

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Last time I spoke here I called my address “the longevity revolution”, and asked, “crisis or opportunity?”.

I intended that question as a challenge but it seems my challenge has not been met. We are as a community, still floundering on the crisis side of the binary. Our approach is still steeped in the language of “burden” and “deficits”. We are still failing to realise the opportunities that longevity can create for us.

Perhaps I was not catastrophic enough in my warnings...not inspirational enough in my ideas...because that was back in 2014, and now two years later, not enough has happened.

As today will be my last chance to address the NPC in this role, I won’t hold back...the crisis has not yet been averted, the opportunities of the ageing revolution still elude us.

Why do I say this?

Because against powerful and persistent economic and workforce data demonstrating great potential gains from increasing workforce participation of older people, and despite growing evidence of the willingness and capacity of Australians to lead longer working lives, we proceed too slowly to dismantle the barriers.

At the same time, we continue to overlook the capacity and desire of people with disability to make economic contributions. This is our loss, and, more importantly theirs.

Today I will direct my comments mainly to the need to recognise and embrace the economic potential of older workers.

But I will ask you to accept that most of my arguments apply also to the importance of ensuring that capable and motivated people with disability are not, out of ignorance and prejudice, excluded from economic participation.

The demographic revolution – it is here, it has happened, but where is our national response?

The 2015 Intergenerational Report projected the number of Australians aged 65 and over to more than double by 2055, when there will be around 40,000 people aged 100 and over[1].

Some of you will be there.

By 2055, men are expected to live on average to 95.1[2] and women to 96.6[3].

Australia is not alone in this regard. Population ageing is global.

In 2015 there were 901 million people aged 60 and over, by 2050, there will be 2.1 billion.[4]

It is not surprising that in Australia, as elsewhere, governments are daunted by the prospect of looming fiscal crises, especially with respect to pensions and health services.

It is surprising, and worrying however, that so little has been done to mitigate such crises.

We do know what to do:

Recent studies have demonstrated the huge benefits to the economy from employing more older workers.

One of them, the Grattan Institute, estimated that increasing the mature age (60-69 years) labour force participation rate by 7% would raise GDP in 2022 by $25 billion. These estimates are echoed in several other major studies.[5]

By now, you would think that business must be aware of the costs to them of excluding older people from workplaces.

They must be aware of the business negatives of losing knowledge, experience and skills, of the high costs of recruitment and training, and the loss of productivity all this brings.

The business case for employing older workers is undeniable, but only relatively few businesses are doing it.

Moving on to the federal government and successive Intergenerational reports, what should we make of the predicted federal budget blowouts related to the ageing society?

The National Commission of Audit found that even allowing for a decline in the proportion of people receiving the full pension, a rise in the number of people receiving the part-rate pension will see the proportion of older Australians eligible for the Age Pension remaining at 80 per cent over the next 40 years.[6]

So, without change, there is a serious future threat to federal budgets.

Change is both necessary and possible.

The biggest and best change we could make is to extend the working life of most Australians.

Does the community want this? Yes.

Government and business leaders should note that people themselves are increasingly aware of what is facing them as they age.

Far from planning to retire in their 50s, most Australians now want and need to work up to their 70s and beyond.

They understand that age rules for the pension and associated concessions are moving up, but where are the jobs and retraining programs to support the longer wait for the pension?

The gap between 55 and 70 can for some turn into a chasm of poverty and despair.

This gap is of our time; it was not faced by our parents.

Compared with a couple of generations ago we enjoy on average an extra 25 years of life.[7] These extra years should produce benefit for communities, for the economy and for older Australians themselves.

The extra years should mean lower welfare and health costs, higher national savings, growing consumption of goods and services, new businesses, higher productivity.

Instead of reaping these longevity rewards we continue to waste human capital, and unnecessarily increase welfare and health costs.

When we are facing average life expectancy for men and women of over 95 years, why do we still tolerate massive age discrimination pushing people in their early 50s out of paid work and on to benefits?

Why do employers while bemoaning skills shortages turn away the skilled and experienced over 50s?

We hear a lot of calls for innovation, enterprise, for new markets, new products, digitalising of everything, robots.... The unstated, or sometimes the stated premise for such desired and desirable developments is that we must look only to the young for them.

Yes, of course the young are and will be a source of innovation. But we should also recognise that creative intelligent individuals, after several decades of work experience, may also find new and better ways of doing things, new and better products, new and bigger markets for innovative goods and services. Senior-preneurs are a rapidly growing cohort yet we hear little about them and offer little to support them.

We have just endured the longest federal election campaign in living memory. Many social and economic policy proposals for the nation were raised, dropped, raised again, costed, dropped again, reborn and continually contested.

In all of this, and over all that time, the economic dimensions of the longevity revolution were scarcely addressed.

During the campaign our leaders loved to appear on evening television in the company of cute babies and cheeky toddlers, shaking hands with cheerful youngish working men in hi- vis vests, testing fruit and vegetables at market stalls, and even communing with rats.... This nightly performance is an entertaining aspect of our democratic process... but it would appear that our leaders engaged more with fruit and vegetables than with older Australians.

Two rats got starring roles on evening TV, one scored an introduction to an urbane and courteous prime minister, the other rat actually got adopted and taken home by the charming and caring opposition deputy leader.

Did any older Australians attract such beneficial attention? I didn’t see it.

Noting that babies and rats don’t vote, and recognising that the over 65s is the fastest growing age cohort in Australia, twice the size of the much discussed youth cohort, is this not a bit strange??

After all, the voices of 3.4 million people aged 65 and over, 22 per cent of enrolled voters, were recorded at the polls on 2 July, compared with just 1.5 million voters aged 18-24, just over 10% of voters.

This lack of political attention to the most rapidly growing age cohort suggests that we urgently need open our minds to older people and especially their place in the world of work.

This world is changing faster than ever before.

We see the explosion in device connectivity; advances in automation, artificial intelligence and robotics; changing employment markets and organisational structures; the rise in entrepreneurship; the shift towards the knowledge economy. All of this means more jobs, but these jobs are for people with the right skills.

And these people could be older workers, newly retrained to fit these jobs, as they could be highly skilled people with disability.

All older workers – and not just those in the auto industry – should be given every opportunity to transition to growth industries.

In addition to the opportunities arising from the digital revolution, the long term structural shift in employment towards services industries continues. Health Care and Social Assistance; Professional, Scientific and Technical Services; Education and Training; and Retail Trade are projected to provide ,over the next five years, more than 600,000 jobs.[8]

So, with these ideas and possibilities occupying me, I was very pleased when a little over 18 months ago, on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I began the Willing to Work National Inquiry into employment discrimination against older Australians and Australians with disability.

I presented the completed report to Attorney-General George Brandis on 2nd May this year, just before the parliament rose for the election.

During the inquiry I met with thousands of people, received hundreds of submissions and travelled around Australia, to regional centres as well as capitals. I commissioned new research to inform what we were told.

I think it is fair to say this exercise has produced the most comprehensive picture we have ever had of older people and paid work in Australia.

The report also documents the workplace barriers to people with disability and provides detailed proposals to overcome these barriers.

When he launched the report in May this year, AttorneyGeneral Brandis welcomed it as a milestone in public policy.

I hope you will agree with the Attorney-General here.

The recommendations, if implemented, will take us a long way towards my major goal, ensuring older people and people with disability are not denied the personal and social benefits – of dignity, independence, a sense of purpose and social connectedness – that work brings.

What did I find in the inquiry?

Employment discrimination against older people is widespread and systemic. Ageism is a barrier at every stage.

Older people are shut out of recruitment. Individuals told the Inquiry of having applied for hundreds of jobs only to be told by recruiters that they were “over qualified”, or “too experienced.” In many cases they received no response at all.

Making it to the interview did not ensure a fair go either. If an older individual did make it to an interview they were typically met by a drop in interest from the interview panel as soon as their age became apparent.

Older people who are in the workplace often experience isolation, age related bullying, and are denied promotion and professional opportunities.

In a restructure older workers are the most vulnerable to being laid off.

Virtually everyone expressed to us the need for flexibility.

To continue to work productively, older workers and people with disability often need some flexibility in hours and days worked and some adjustments. Despite this need, we heard that individuals had great difficulty in accessing flexible working arrangements and low cost work place adjustments. Some told us that their manager had an attitude of ‘full-time or not at all’, while others upon making a request for flexibility or adjustment found they started to be nudged into retirement.

We heard of perceptions, pervasive though unfounded, that older workers were less productive, less open to change and new technologies, not worth training, and simply hanging round waiting for retirement.

These negative attitudes force many people out, often in their early 50s. Once out, many never get back. Just think, forty years of life without paid work, it is unthinkable but that is what these people are facing.

What is government doing?

Successive governments have funded programs to address the exclusion of older workers, but through the Inquiry it has become clear that some government policies are actually creating disincentives.

Others fail to connect the workers with the jobs.

Regulated age-cuts offs often reflect the outdated thinking that age 65 is still the preferred retirement age.

But, age pensions soon will start at 67, and probably move to 70. Age cut offs at 65 prevent older workers accessing income protection insurance, and worker’s compensation. Without cover, they are usually unemployable.

Wage subsidies, such as the Restart program which provides a wage subsidy for hiring workers over 50, cost the Commonwealth many millions but miss the mark because of poor program design.

The recommendations –

The Willing to Work Report contains 56 recommendations.

Some of the recommendations could be implemented relatively quickly and at little cost. Others will require a longer term approach and require funding. I am not always talking about new funds. Existing allocations currently missing the mark could be transferred to more effective activities.

Doing nothing is not an option.

My recommendations for government include:

Establishing a Minister for Longevity to bring government attention at the highest level to the economic dimensions of age discrimination, and to coordinate whole of government action. This Minister would lead policy to realise the economic potential of older people, and broaden the dialogue about ageing beyond aged care.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency should be empowered to collect data from private sector employers on age and disability, just as it does now in relation to gender. It would publicly report on progress against voluntary targets set by employers, and support business efforts to eliminate this discrimination.

We also recommend that government undertake well-focused and sustained community education and awareness campaigns to challenge entrenched community attitudes and stereotypes about older workers.

In relation to the Commonwealth as an employer, we recommend that targets in relation to older workers and people with disability be set by each commonwealth department and agency. These targets should be reported annually and their achievement form part of performance assessments.

If there is one area of our recommendations I see as crucial it is those in relation to the long neglected vocational, education and training sector. I propose that VET, especially our TAFE colleges be re invigorated to become the key providers of the much needed retraining and upskilling of middle aged workers. Supported by VET, governments could establish strong retraining pathways, including a boost to mature age apprenticeships.

The car manufacturing worker facing retrenchment, the miner whose job is being phased out, the nurse no longer able to do heavy lifting, all of them need a retraining opportunity and directions to their new job, a job they could do productively until they reach 70, if they wish.

In the last federal Budget the total allocated for employment services, that is, for those outsourced bodies paid to find jobs for the unemployed, was $1.645 billion. This massive amount is not getting results. This is an area where we don’t so much need new money as redirection of existing commitments.

My approach to tackling of age discrimination in the private sector is not so much legislative, but to provide positive examples, showing not only that it can be done, but it is being done and that those businesses doing it are profiting.

There are quite a few businesses out there that do recognise and utilise the diverse skills and abilities of older Australians, and Australians with disability.

I commend you to the associated publication from the inquiry which showcases over 70 examples of employers who are doing this, and reaping business rewards as a result.

Many household names, Bunnings, Accor, Westpac, Telstra, IAG insurance, recognise the value of older workers to their business and have developed strategies to keep these valued older workers contributing.

Crown Resorts has a standout employment program for people with disability.

What works for large companies may not suit small business. In recognition of this, the Inquiry recommends government funded regional advisers, working in conjunction with business Chambers to bring information and advice about employing older people and people with disability to the small businesses themselves, who otherwise get left out of the loop.

The focus of my work over the last five years, including the national inquiry, has been to identify what would be the most productive change to support Australians as we age.

This change is the removal of discrimination in the workplace.

But as this is my last time to address the nation’s media on these matters, I will raise a couple of other important issues.

The longevity revolution isn’t just about working longer; it is also about protecting the fundamental human rights of the vulnerable.

While older Australians are living longer and healthier lives, it is inevitable that with advanced age comes increasing demand for health services and care.

The growing number of very old Australians results in an increased demand for aged care services.

From a human rights perspective, the rights of frail older people, whatever their circumstances, are best protected by the timely development of a well-trained aged care workforce.

We need to improve not only the size of the aged care workforce, but the quality of the training. And, we must insist on the rigorous application of high standards throughout the sector.

Older Australians have the right to feel safe, protected from violence in their relationships, families and in their homes. Some are not safe. Many forms of elder abuse are inflicted on our older people and we need to take action to stop this scourge.

This action has started and I believe that significant progress will follow the current Australian Law Reform Commission Inquiry into Protecting the Rights of Older Australians from Abuse.


Today I have concentrated on the challenges of removing workplace discrimination, the continuing theme of my five years as Commissioner.

It has been a task which I might say has suited me well. It has allowed me to continue to pursue that value central to my own life, before, during and beyond my years in parliament: that is, my belief in the right to work.

None of our fellow citizens should be unfairly denied this right.

Protecting the right to work has been my own take on human rights in Australia, and the particular dimension I have sought to contribute to the Human Rights Commission’s important work.

Our work at the Commission is varied and each of us brings different perspectives and priorities.

Over the years since 1986 when the Commission was established, around forty individuals have been honoured by a Commissioner appointment. We come from diverse backgrounds, and have brought to our roles different work and life experiences. For over three decades our work has been pursued by – brilliant lawyers, by highly effective leaders from our indigenous and ethnic communities, by excellent academics. Some of our commissioners have achieved extraordinary things while living with profound disability. And I must note the significant number of female commissioners who prior to their appointments, achieved great success in different careers, despite being born female.

For me, to have worked as a Commissioner has been one of the highlights of a very long working life.

My working life has been unexpectedly eventful and rewarding.

I say unexpected because I was born into a modest Australian family, during the second world war, while my father was serving in New Guinea. Apart from being a war baby, which had its own hazards, being born female in 1942 was definitely a career limiting move.!!!

Maybe not in 2016?

Because I know from my own surprising story that Australia did and does provide opportunity to so many of us, I have always wanted to see that opportunity extended to all of us, wherever we come from, whatever our circumstances.

That aspiration, right now, faces many challenges.

But, I believe in Australia and Australians.

If I, despite my unlikely personal story, especially the gender baggage, could land up in Bob Hawke’s Cabinet, I have to conclude that Australia has got a lot going for it.

The opportunity to serve as Age Discrimination Commissioner and subsequently Disability Discrimination Commissioner, has been a high point in this fortunate life.

I am immensely grateful to all who made that possible: my Commissioner colleagues, the two distinguished Presidents I served with, and the wonderful Commission staff.

I thank former Attorney-General Robert McClelland and then Attorney-General George Brandis for the confidence they expressed in me.

I want to express my appreciation also for the cooperation and civility afforded me in my commissioner role by Ministers from successive governments over the years, and other members of parliament.

I hope that my focus on the right to work of older Australians and those with disability has been effective.

I leave this job however with a live sense of unfinished business.

My distinguished successors, Dr Kay Patterson AO as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Alistair McEwin as Disability Discrimination Commissioner will have plenty to do and I wish them well.


We must as a society move more rapidly to accommodate the big societal changes, the big shifts that have occurred in human existence.

None is bigger than the ageing revolution.

To respond to this, we must remake our sense of human life, its extent and possibilities.

Our Australian way of life has delivered great things to many of us: equality of opportunity, security, wellbeing. Those great things now must be extended to all as they live throughout their extended lifetimes.

This is as big a challenge as we have faced in Australia.

I urge our new Prime Minister and his team to make our successful longevity a top priority.

Thank you

[1] The Treasury, 2015 Intergenerational Report - Overview (2015), p 8. At (viewed 22 May 2015).
[2] Australian Government, Intergenerational Report 2015: Australia in 2055, Treasury, Canberra, 2015 at p4.
[3] Australian Government, Intergenerational Report 2015: Australia in 2055, Treasury, Canberra, 2015 at p4.
[4] United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. At (viewed 23 June 2016).
[5] Grattan Institute (2012) Game-changes: Economic reform priorities for Australia, p 54. At: (viewed 3 December 2015).
[6] The Australian Government, National Commission of Audit, 7.1 The Age Pension, 2014. At: (viewed 23 June 2016).
[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2014 (Cat. No. 3105.0.65.001). At (viewed 1 July 2016).
[8] Department of Employment, ‘Industry Employment Projections 2016 Report’, March 2016. At (viewed 24 June 2016).

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner