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Reflections on age discrimination: The price we pay for growing older

Age Discrimination


Speech by Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination
Australian Human Rights Commission


Sydney Institute
Mallesons, Level 61, Governor Phillip Tower, 1 Farrer Plc, Sydney

Tuesday 21 June 2011

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I come here today to talk to you at the end of my term as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination.

But first let me acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my deepest respects to their elders both past and present.

My path to promote age equality has been both sobering and uplifting.

Sobering to expose what I have often referred to as the “invisible” discrimination in our society – a discrimination so widely and unconsciously accepted that we are often completely unaware that our actions support it – a discrimination so universally part of our modern culture, that we often accept it without question.

And uplifting because there is so much momentum for change. One manifestation of this momentum and the reason we are here today is that - for the first time – as from July we will have a full time Age Discrimination Commissioner.

And that is something I think people in this sector have great cause to celebrate.

This means that, like the other areas of discrimination – sex, race, disability and Indigenous - age discrimination will finally have a fully funded Commissioner devoted full-time to their advocacy together with accompanying resources and full time staff.

Of course, there are many critical issues facing older people today ranging from aged care to elder abuse. Before I start, I want to share a story with you that highlights what I will be focusing on tonight.

We recently had a 50yro man come to the Commission to complain that he had applied for a job for which he considered he was well qualified. He was told that he was not considered for the position as he did not have enough industry experience. So you can imagine his surprise when he was accidently forwarded an email meant for the recruitment consultant which referring to his application said “Sounds good ... but I think a bit old .... need to get back to him with a result though!” Needless to say the matter settled.

Tonight I will focus on older people and age discrimination, particularly in paid work.

I want to do 4 things:

  1. First, I will start by making some introductory remarks about age discrimination and ageism;
  2. Second, I will reflect on my time in the role and some of the people I have met;
  3. Third, I will look at the changes over my term – and they have been significant;
  4. Finally, I want to make some comments about the future – particularly a Convention on the Rights of Older People.

The fact is we live in an ageist society where the better health and life expectancies of people are often perversely cast as a burden.

It seems perfectly innocent to talk about ‘Gen Y’s’ and ‘Baby Boomers’ and attribute certain behaviour, abilities and characteristics to them – ‘selfish go-getters’ or ‘grumpy technophobes’. We feel it is perfectly benign that our society categorises people in this way and that we use these terms in our day to day lives – we even laugh about them.

But the reality is, that by embracing these terms and the host of meanings and invalid beliefs that we attach to them, they become true to us. We start to apply these often unsubstantiated and incorrect generalisations to the way we behave toward people. We attach stereotypical views to diverse groups based purely on their age. And, when these stereotypes are applied in areas such as recruitment and employment, they can have devastating effects.

If you doubt the reality of this let me tell you about another of the people I heard from during my term as Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination. This is just one of the stories I have heard from hundreds of people who have spoken to me in consultations, at public events and in radio talkback.

He was a very experienced and highly skilled man, aged in his 40s. From the film industry, he had been out of work since January because of the downturn in production. He could not access any Centrelink payments because he had some savings from which he was living, but which were now rapidly diminishing. Finding he was not only being passed over by recruitment companies when he submitted his CV, but was not even having his applications acknowledged, he began to make inquiries. The responses he received were, at the very least, surprising. He was told, by more than one agency, that the highest priority was to get younger people into the workforce first. He was told by others that companies were only looking for younger, more dynamic staff who could fit in well with their young teams.

He was further told by some that older people were largely seen to be less compliant, tended to fight management over issues and often tried to force their own morals, virtues and views of life onto others.

Discriminatory, I ask you?

We hear a lot about the ageing population. Globally, statistics show that in 2009, 11% of people were aged 60 years or over, projected to become 22% by 2050. That’s 2 billion people aged 60 years or over by 2050, by which time older people will outnumber children.[1] Here in Australia in 2007, 13 % of the population was aged 65 and over. By 2056, this figure is projected to almost double to 23%.[2]

This reason alone makes the push for a binding international Convention on the Rights of Older Persons so very important. But I will come back to that later.

Exposing, stigmatising and eradicating unlawful age discrimination is important because it is wrong, and because every single one of us – now and into the future - stands the chance of facing this form of discrimination as we grow older.

So my main point today is that the demographic shift to an ageing population has already happened. It is here. It is our certain future.

As a nation, we need to stride into this certain future with policies and attitudes that will identify, name and halt this form of discrimination.

[1] Having made some introductory remarks, let me now reflect on my time in the role.

I doubt that I will ever forget the first ‘light bulb’ moment I had when the realities of age discrimination really started to hit home.

It was at one of my first briefings after taking up my position at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I was sitting there - concentrating studiously as you do in a new job – when the presenter started talking about ‘who’, exactly, a mature age worker was. “Mature-age workers are workers aged 45 years and older,” she stated, as she moved pragmatically on to her next point. Meanwhile, as her comment started to penetrate my veneer of perfectly poised studiousness, I began having one of those silent, jaw-dropping “WHAAATTT?!!!” moments that you see in comedies. “That can’t be right,” I was thinking, as I sensed the cold fingers of shock rushing down my spine. “That’s ME!– I’m a mature age worker?!!! – but I’m only 47!”

Which was when I realized that this was the great untold story about ageism and age discrimination in our country. That, once you turn 45, in employment terms, you are considered by many in the employment market to be over the hill. And the further ‘over that hill’ you get, the more unemployable you are likely to become. Not because you are unskilled. Simply because the prevailing community attitude and dominant set of stereotypes have moved to now consider you to be ‘old’ and with this, saddled with a host of false and destructive assumptions.

The thing that really got me was that the issue of age discrimination was not someone else’s – someone older’s - issue anymore. Here I was – at 47 – a mature age worker, where this issue was squarely my issue.

I realized that what I had to do was work with others to make them ‘see it’ too.

I resolved to get the real picture by seeking out the experiences and stories of people who were living with age discrimination and its effects, and by immersing myself in the existing research and policy proposals in the area.

So, among other things, I embarked upon a period of consultation with peak bodies in the age sector, legal service providers, unions, business leaders, academics and relevant government departments.

With the aid of my very small team, I amassed as much knowledge and research on this issue as I could. And then, one blustery Victorian day in August 2009, I presented what I knew – and what I now feared! - in a speech at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in Melbourne entitled, ‘Mature Age Worker – You’ll be one sooner than you think!’ We also issued a media release headed, “If you are 45, get ready for age discrimination to affect your employablility”!

I have to say, the result was both immediate and far in excess of my wildest expectations. We had hit our target and the media started calling. A number of producers, journalists and presenters told me that the news about being a mature aged worker from 45 was a shock. Others, of course, were just happy to have the experiences they were living with, finally named.

I heard from women whose skilled husbands had fallen into clinical depression after repeated recruitment rejections. I remember a man in his early 50s who had applied for over 500 positions in eight years and received just four interviews. A woman in her late 50s who was told her job no longer existed and therefore she, was now redundant, only to find a woman in her 30s was then hired to do the same work under a different position name. People who had been subjected to ageist bullying taunts and jokes in a bid to force them into early retirement, often having it suggested that they “have a responsibility to make way for someone younger.” People being asked questions in interviews, such as, “why do you want this job at this late stage in life?”, “How long do you really intend to keep working?”, “How do you think you will keep up with our younger staff?” or “Our team’s a bit younger – do you think you can fit in?”

Is this the price we pay for growing older?

I was confronted by the sense of shame that accompanies this form of discrimination; the stripping away of dignity. The fact that some people even begin to internalise, believe and resign themselves to the stereotypes, ultimately self-selecting out of the workforce. I became more acutely aware than I ever had been of the way a person’s work can define their sense of self-respect and their individual identity.

It reinforced for me that discrimination should not be the thing that determines a person’s choice to work or not to work.

Because that is what we are really talking about – having a choice.

I am not for a minute suggesting that everyone keep working if they choose not to. But I am saying that this choice should be a genuine one. The tragic and, quite honestly, insulting fact is that many people do want to keep working. But for reasons that have nothing to do with skill, ability, capacity or merit, people who want to work are unable to. For no rational reason - that choice to work is taken away from them.

And the repercussions are significant. Aside from the stripping away of personal dignity and self-respect, many people find their savings are quickly exhausted and that they must seek welfare. Years before they expected to, many people I spoke to found themselves applying for a pension. And the very common outcome – an outcome that, I imagine, a significant portion had never expected – is poverty in older age – in fact, at an age that is not that old at all.

If you in any way doubt this, let me share some statistics with you. In 2009 – that’s just two years ago – the OECD reported that more than one in four older people in Australia were living in poverty. And Australia had the fourth highest old-age poverty rate among OECD countries – a rate that is over double the OECD average.[3]

The dreamy image of two glamorous well-funded retirees, dressed in breezy blue and white Country Road, throwing a stick for their Golden Retriever as they walk along the beach, is just that – a dream.

[2] But if all this suddenly feels woeful, I want to reassure you that there is cause for hope. We have seen significant progress in recent years and I now want to turn to my third area of discussion and outline some of those changes.

In my initial speech to the Australian Institute of Family Studies in August 2009, I called for four key areas of reform.

Those four areas were 1. a strengthening of the Age Discrimination Act, 2. an audit of federal laws containing age limits, 3. more research; and 4. a well funded awareness-raising strategy.

I had compelling reasons to call for these reforms.

The Act. Despite the Age Discrimination Act being the most recent addition to our four federal anti-discrimination Acts, and an important source of rights protection, the Act was widely considered the weakest - it contained a more difficult discrimination test; and the broadest range of exemptions; and importantly, it failed to set up the permanent office of the Age Discrimination Commissioner.

At the same time, we were also hearing from people that there were age-based restrictions in federal laws and policies which were disadvantaging mature age workers in their ability to participate in the workforce. These are things like age caps in superannuation laws, workers compensation coverage and access to insurances. Hence the call for an audit of laws to identify and review age caps.

As I said, we also desperately need research. The dire lack of research in this area is a reflection of the extent to which age discrimination is way behind the eight-ball compared with other areas of discrimination for which proper and comprehensive research bases exist.

Research is crucial for two main reasons. It will enable us to more thoroughly understand the problems facing mature age workers in the most complete way. It will also support an evidence-based approach to the development of policy and reform of laws that would effectively address the barriers that mature age workers face. But above all, research will confirm something people who suffer from various forms of age discrimination already know – that it is very real. It will deliver hard prevalence data.

And it therefore goes without saying that funded communication strategies will both raise awareness about the forms of age discrimination that exist and expose the deeply entrenched ageism that thrives within our community.

So let’s look back over my 3 year term at the changes that have occurred in response to these four challenges. It is in the sphere of policy and law reform that we have perhaps seen the most significant changes.

In 2008, the Australian government began a number of important policy changes that impact on the area of age discrimination, six of which I will explain here.

As I have mentioned, my consultations revealed that age discrimination was the foremost barrier to the labour market participation of mature age workers. No matter how skilled and well trained someone is, age discrimination can cut right across this. That is why I called for the strengthening of the Age Discrimination Act.

So on this front, I am delighted to report in this period the first area of positive policy movement by the federal government, which the Commission advocated for, which was the removal of the very difficult test for establishing age discrimination within the courts, the ‘dominant reason’ test.[4] Its removal brought the Age Discrimination Act into line with the tests contained in the three other federal anti-discrimination laws.

Secondly, the government moved to amend the Act to create a full-time, dedicated Age Discrimination Commissioner which will be a crucial step toward structurally guaranteeing that age does not lose its place in discussions about human rights in Australia.[5]

Thirdly, exemptions. The federal government launched ‘Australia’s Human Rights Framework’ last year, which recommended combining all our federal anti-discrimination laws into a single Act.[6] This process offers the potential to examine and review the very broad exemptions currently contained in the Age Discrimination Act. It offers the tremendous potential to take the Age Discrimination Act from being the poorest of cousins to, finally, an ‘equal’ partner in terms of protection offered – so, watch this space.

But just as law reform is of critical importance to protections against unlawful age discrimination, so too are initiatives undertaken at the policy level.

Here too we have seen great change, precipitated in February 2010 by the launch of the federal government’s third Intergenerational Report. So fourthly, at this time the Treasurer announced the launch of the $43.3 million Productive Ageing Package which included the creation of the Consultative Forum on Mature Age Participation.[7] The Consultative Forum, the first of its kind, provides advice to Government on practical solutions that will address barriers to employment for mature age people and focuses on addressing negative attitudes toward mature age job seekers and workers.[8]

I am personally excited about this. This policy space has long been dominated by a training and skills analysis and, while not wanting to downplay the importance of these issues, the government emphasis on age discrimination as a barrier to participation for mature age workers is important as in the past it has tended to have been overlooked.

The Consultative Forum has also been able to input into important business initiatives like the Federal government’s ‘Investing in Experience Employment Charter’. This Charter - the fifth initiative - asks Australian employers to sign on to the principles of the Charter and assists them with strategies on the recruitment and retention of mature age people.[9]

While the Forum’s terms of reference are for a limited duration, it is my sincere hope that it will continue beyond that date and become a permanent mechanism.

Which brings me to number six. The federal government has recently set up an Advisory Panel on the Economic Potential of Senior Australians, which is another great initiative. Its aim is to complement the work of the Consultative Forum by ensuring that the potential of older people in our community is considered in a range of policy debates. These include the ways in which businesses and policy makers can assist older people in their choices to transition from the workforce into other endeavours.[10] Again, I hope this Panel can continue with this important work on an indefinite basis.

In addition to federal government initiatives, I have seen real movement on these issues at the bi-partisan, parliamentary level as well as at the state level, with a number of commissions and state government departments developing innovative projects on mature age workers and on age discrimination issues more generally.

Turning from reform to research, I can report a significant increase in Australian research partnerships and proposals on age discrimination, ageism and ageing more generally.

As a result of Consultative Forum recommendations, the government has now funded the first comprehensive Australian nature and prevalence study into the barriers facing mature age workers. It will identify what these problems look like in our workplaces and help ensure that solutions are properly informed by a sound evidence-base. Without this vital research, as law and policy-makers, we may only be seeing and fixing half the problem.

Back at the Commission, we’ve released our first education resource on age discrimination and mature age workers which we launched on 1 October 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons. This publication provides everything from a definition of ageism and summary of legal protections to case studies aimed at exposing the human face of this form of discrimination with its often brutal consequences on people’s lives.

So, while it is early days yet, I am certainly optimistic that long-term research dollars will continue to be directed toward age discrimination.

By any assessment, this represents significant change for an emerging policy area that many people had not even heard of when I commenced my term a short three years ago.

And, though I have not spoken in any depth about communication strategies in relation to the issue of age discrimination, I believe that, implicit in the gains and successes I have just described, is the role of communication. For if communication was not taking place in an effective manner, these things would not have happened. And for change to continue to happen, long-term, well-funded communication strategies will be needed for awareness-raising into the future.

[3] Which brings me to the matter of the future – my final area of discussion tonight.

I mentioned an International Convention on the Rights of Older People earlier. It is not only domestically, but internationally, that the courageous push toward establishing a Convention has begun.

A binding convention will recognise the fundamental human rights and freedoms of older people globally. While here in our first world country I have heard terrible stories of elder abuse and deprivation of liberty, advocates in the developing world remind us that the situation for many older people in poorer countries is dire. A convention will open up a space for the voices of older people to be heard – for older people themselves to be the architects of their own destinies.

And in terms of raising community awareness, the push for an international convention represents a very important advocacy tool for NGO’s and activists in galvanising people to action globally. And for governments, it also provides a very useful domestic, whole-of-government policy framework.

Here in Australia, we need to ensure that the conversation is broadened from within the offices of the Commission and of advocacy groups and taken out into the wider community.

Concerns about age discrimination should form part of everyday conversations, particularly when people are turning their thoughts to social injustice within our community. One of the breakfast television shows once told me that, unless it was important to 90% of its audience, it would not run a story. Well age discrimination concerns 100 per cent of the audience. Most people live past 45, so most will come face to face with age discrimination in some form. It needs to be part of the national conversation – in our newspapers, on our radios and on our televisions, as well as in our everyday conversations.

I am talking about a social movement. For me, it is a social movement similar to that which has heightened awareness and action in relation to sex discrimination. With this more visible conversation about age discrimination comes inevitability – and that is the inevitability of change.

Creating a focus and galvanising people to action is not just some far-flung international phenomenon – it is happening right here in our own backyard and it has been for many decades. In particular, I would like to note the fantastic efforts of National Seniors Australia and the Council on the Ageing, our two age peaks, and the age sector generally, in tirelessly advocating for the rights of the many older people who constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in our country.

Both government and business have taken important steps to eradicate the acceptability of age discrimination. It is often in our workplaces that changes in social attitudes begin before spreading out into the daily lives of the wider community. It is my sincere hope that the business, government and community sectors will continue to work together in the longer-term to this end. Continuing investment in these initiatives is a critical investment in our future.

To the human rights sector, of which I am indisputably a part, I say age discrimination is all our business. To fight one form of discrimination is to fight them all. Many forms of discrimination may involve older people. We have older women; we have older people with disability; we have Indigenous elders; we have older people who are culturally and linguistically diverse and we have older people of different sexualities. We need to understand the diversity of older people and act on the multiple forms of discrimination they may experience.

And finally, to older people themselves - for some of you, I will have said nothing tonight that you don’t already know. For others, I will have simply named something that you have felt deeply but accepted as something you must just live with.

No-one should ‘put up’ with this. The challenge of a deeply entrenched and accepted form of discrimination is to stigmatise it – to speak up in your circles of influence and to name it - to say clearly that this is unacceptable. This is wrong. This goes against everything our community and our culture stands for.

I am very grateful to my own father for doing just this in our own family. For good naturedly pointing out the times when we use language that may be excluding of older people or when we blithely propose an aged based stereotype without thinking. “Where’s the evidence?” my father now asks.

This is the social movement we must strive for – the kind of movement we have seen in other sectors such as race, gender and disability.

Led by the voices of older people, this is the foundation needed for a community that is truly inclusive – a community where when we speak about human rights, age equality is front and centre.

Thank you.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division 2009, Population Ageing and Development Table, (accessed 20/6/11)
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008, Population Projections, Australia 2006 to 2101, (accessed 20/6/11)
[3] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2009, Australia: Highlights from OECD Pensions at a Glance 2009, (accessed 20/6/11)
[4] Attorney-General’s for Australia 2008, Government Strengthens Protection for Older Australians (1 October 2008), (accessed 20/6/11)
[5] Australian Labor Party 2010, Delivering for Seniors (7 August 2010), (accessed 20/6/11) and Attorney-General for Australia 2011, Greater Protections against Sexual Harassment and Discrimination (24 May 2011) (accessed 20/6/11)
[6] Attorney-General’s Department 2011, Australia’s Human Right’s Framework, (accessed 20/6/11)
[7] The Treasurer and Minister for Employment Participation 2010, Productive Ageing Package announcement (1 February 2010) (accessed on 20/6/11)
[8] Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2011, Consultative Forum on Mature Age Participation, (accessed 20/6/11)
[9] Minister for Employment Participation 2011, New initiatives to keep mature age Australians in jobs (30 March 2011) (accessed 20/6/11)
[10] The Treasurer and the Minister for Mental Health & Ageing 2011, Panel to Advise on Economic Potential of Seniors (30 March 2011) (accessed 20/6/11)