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The Price We Pay: Age discrimination and the economy (2012)

Age Discrimination

The Price We Pay: Age discrimination and the economy

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

University of Western Sydney
Victoria Rd, Rydalmere

28 February 2012

First let me acknowledge the traditional owners of Greater Western Sydney, the Darug, Gandagarra and Tharawal peoples whose land the university’s six campuses span. I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

In my role as Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, I am charged with reducing age discrimination in all its forms, discrimination that can affect younger people as well as older people.

The Age Discrimination Act protects the rights of people of any age to be free of discrimination based on age, in areas and services defined in the legislation. Those areas cover employment and employment related matters, finance, accommodation, goods and services, and other commonwealth laws.

Illegal age discrimination, reflecting as it does deeply embedded community prejudice, affects many people negatively.

My job is, essentially, to change that, and to help create a community and work environment where people are treated with dignity and respect, and assessed on their merits, regardless of age

In carrying out my tasks I have found that although there is work to do in tackling age discrimination against young people, the most prevalent damage is done by discrimination against older people.

My remarks tonight will address how we can protect our older fellow citizens from this damage, this undermining of their human rights.

I want to state at the start that from my perspective as Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the widespread age discrimination that forces people out of the workforce years before they are ready to retire is a practice that violates basic human rights in many ways.

If people in their 50’s or 60’s are denied the opportunity to earn a living, simply because of their age, they are in effect denied the right to live in security and dignity, two underlying requirements of universal human rights.

Poverty that results from discrimination raises a number of questions of policy: of welfare policy regarding adequacy of benefits, and of labour market training policy regarding provision of services for up skilling and job search.

But essentially discrimination is wrong because it erodes human rights.

The rights and freedoms which are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1947, like privacy, dignity, rights to family life, to one’s culture and religion, to live free of torture and persecution, freedom of information, all of these are undermined if a person, because of discrimination is forced into poverty.

Hence as Age Discrimination Commissioner my overriding responsibility is to fight against discrimination- to take all possible steps, and use all available laws such as the ADA and the AHRC Act, as well as advocacy to government and powerful institutions, and community education, to reduce and ultimately get rid of age discrimination.

How am I approaching this objective?

If it is age discrimination that is the major factor condemning older people to unemployment years before they are ready to retire, and I am convinced that it is, then my response is to work with those who make these damaging decisions, the employers, and persuade them to change.

Employers must be my top priority: the ABS tells us that in July 2011, 18 per cent of people over the age of 45 said they couldn’t get work because they were 'considered too old by employers'.[1]

To move towards fairer employment practices, the most constructive approach is to establish the business case, the productivity case.

Business owners, quite rightly, want to run profitable enterprises. They want to grow and to expand their operations. To do this they have not only to keep their shareholders satisfied, they need further profits to reinvest in innovation, new technologies and upgrading workers’ skills.

Continuing profitability is the challenge in the corporate sector.

Turning to the public sector, the goals are not profits but efficiency and successful policy implementation. In both sectors the capacities and performance of staff determine success or failure.

Employers large and small, public and private, across all sectors need to recognise that the practice of discarding employees who have many years productive capacity left is bad for business, bad for productivity and impedes success.

Many employers do not recognise these facts in relation to older workers. Hence we have the individual tragedies, the business losses and the national economic cost resulting from getting rid of workers simply because they are judged, according to the stereotype, to be “too old”.

Recent research commissioned by the Financial Services Council found that three out of ten older workers surveyed had direct experience of age-related discrimination.[2] The most frequently cited example of this discrimination was being made redundant or laid-off before others, an observation which was backed by the responses from employers. One Senior HR Manager from an ASX 200 company is quoted in the report as saying

“Oh, it [discrimination] is a HUGE issue – but you’ll never get anyone to admit to it; it’s much easier to find excuses related to ‘culture’, ‘workplace harmony’ or some other such language...”

Before I go on to argue the business case for ending age discrimination in employment, let me remind you of a few of the policy settings in which all this is happening.

Almost everyone needs to work at least up to the age of eligibility for the age pension, currently 65 years but moving towards 67 years for men and women by 2023.

Until they reach that age, most people without a job have either to try to live on scant savings, to draw down some superannuation if they have it and the rules allow it, or to apply for Newstart, the unemployment benefit. Beyond a few weeks, anyone surviving on this payment alone will be reduced to abject poverty, and possibly homelessness. Often long term unemployed people become ill, and may then have no option but to go onto disability benefit, surely not the best outcome for the individual or public policy.

In advocating for more employment opportunities for capable older workers, I am sometimes challenged with the claim that most individuals in their late fifties and beyond are happy to be retired, that they don’t want to work.

Research shows a different picture. While there are indeed some happy and financially secure early retirees enjoying their circumstances, this is by no means the full story.

A recent Australian Government report, Realising the Economic Potential of Senior Australians, shows that there are two million Australians older than 55 interested in working who have no jobs.

A Deloitte analysis establishes that unemployed people between 55 and 70 years of age constitute a huge untapped resource; the greatest indeed available to employers.

Remember we are living in an economy where we hear daily complaints from employers about skills shortages, and constant calls to government to bring in more skilled workers.

Yes, immigration is important and beneficial but what about the 2 million experienced and willing people we have here, available for full or part time work, with decades of experience and skills to offer?

The Commonwealth Treasury estimates that the failure to engage older people who want to keep working is costing the economy $10.8 billion a year. That figure would include the payment of age pension to people who would rather be working and the cost of the various health and pharmaceutical subsidies available to all people drawing full or part age pension.

As well, the tax that these people would pay if in work is lost to public revenue, and deprived of paid work these people cannot add to their super savings nor increase national savings.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission we have our own evidence of widespread age discrimination in the workplace. For the period 1 July 2011 to 31 October 2011 complaints lodged about age discrimination increased by 44% compared to the previous reporting year and enquiries about discrimination on the basis of being too old were up 78%. The majority of enquiries received about age discrimination were relating to employment, 66%.[3]

The disconnect between those who are capable of work but denied it through age prejudice and the costs of this denial to the economy creates huge imposts that must be addressed. This is not a situation that will be solved by business as usual, the status quo approach.

Population ageing is one of the major social challenges of the 21st century. Over the next 40 years the number of people in Australia aged between 65 and 84 will more than double, and those 86 and above will quadruple.

We are as a society getting older all the time. Nothing will stop or even slowdown this trend.

Women born today are likely to live until 95.

If we do retire at the ‘traditional’ age, around 60-65, many of us will have to find the money to fund up to 30 years of retirement.

In just a couple of generations, we have acquired an extra lifetime to live.

We are living in better health than ever before. Professor Ian Hickie (University of Sydney) was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 January telling us that older brains are healthy, and that work keeps them that way. The health, mental and physical, of those who are employed is better than the unemployed, and this is true at all ages.

The Commonwealth Age Pension was introduced in 1909[4] at a time when the life expectancy for men was 55 and for women it was 59.[5] Women were eligible for the Pension at age 60 and men at 65. Obviously, with life expectancy in the 50s, most people didn’t live long enough to receive it.

We are still stuck with the 1909 model, but, now approximately 80 per cent of all Australians aged 65 and older are reliant to some degree on the Age Pension.[6] In 2007, 55 per cent of over 65s were wholly dependent on the aged pension[7].

What is to be done?

We could find ourselves paralysed by Treasury projections that show that an ageing population will add about $60 billion to government expenditure by 2050.[8]

But every time I read another Intergenerational report from Treasury and note the inevitable catastrophising that follows, the mountains of debt bearing down on us because of extended life expectancy, I want to shout:

Demography is not destiny.

Without any intervention the massive costs of an older population will build up to unsustainable levels.

But...we can intervene, we can change all this.

First and foremost to prevent this catastrophic outlook turning into reality we can get rid of age discrimination in the workforce.

We know millions of Australians want to work longer and are capable of working for many years beyond the age pension age,

What is stopping them?

They are stopped by out dated employer and community mindsets and some pockets of out dated government policy.

But they are getting opportunities in some places.

I am happy to report I know of several future focused and successful employers who are right now moving away from the old stereotypes.

They are finding ways of using the talents and valuable qualities of employees regardless of age.

The result is that they are hiring older workers, and keeping their current older workers longer. And this is working, for the business as well as the individuals.

What do they have to do? Are we looking at some industrially complex, costly high risk strategy?


The first thing, the starting point, is looking closely at their own workforce. Who are the employees, where are they placed in the organisation, what skills do they have, and, the key question, what are their intentions about retirement?

The companies I know of that are making progress have all consulted their workforce, especially about their intentions and wishes about a retirement point.

All of them have found one requirement stands out: flexibility.

Older workers usually are prepared to stay on if they can have some flexibility around hours worked or days worked.

Usually they have caring responsibilities, for a frail parent, or grandchildren, or an ill partner, or a child with disability.

Just as over recent years parents of young children have been able to negotiate part time or flexible hours, to the benefit of their families and their employers, older workers can do this.

Often too the older worker would like to transition slowly to retirement by changing their role in the company and taking on a role with lesser pressure, fewer hours but perhaps new mentoring responsibilities. The new role would be paid at a lower rate, but from 60 on, individuals can top up this pay by drawing down some of their super, tax free.

Employers keen to maximise this pool of valuable labour often find that assisting employees to get independent finance advice helps. Many people need this advice to understand their true financial picture. They often then realise that they cannot afford to retire for some years.

Upgrading of skills is often needed and older workers need to take a positive attitude to training, and to new ways of doing things. Like all successful relationships, the successful relationship between the older worker and the employer is two way.

Because we can already see some employers starting to rid their operations of age prejudice, I know that it is possible to get these better practices accepted across the labour market, in all sectors.

I am confident that we can persuade all the stakeholders that we cannot afford age discrimination. The costs are too high... to our economy, to our society and those millions of individuals who have the wish and the capacity to continue their working lives.

I am optimistic that with the growing awareness of the economic worth of older workers and inspired by the practical leadership of those employers who understand this, we are moving towards an Australian society which values everyone, recognises all of their capacities, and enables all everyone to contribute, regardless of age.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6222.0 - Job Search Experience, Australia, July 2011. At (viewed 25 January 2012).
[2] Westfield Wright Communications and Research, Attitudes to older workers, prepared for the Financial Services Council, January 2012, p.6
[3] Australian Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2010-2011, 2011, p. 115. At
[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, History of Pensions and other Benefits in Australia, 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 1988. At:!OpenDocument
[5] ABS, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Mar 2011. At:
[6] Aged and Community Services Australia, An Ageing Australia, Fact Sheet 1, p.2. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[7] Aged and Community Services Australia, An Ageing Australia, Fact Sheet 1, p.2. At (viewed 24 January 2012).
[8] The Treasury, ‘Aging Pressures and Spending’, The 2010 Intergenerational Report, 2010. At (viewed 5 October 2011).

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner