Introduction

Most days newspapers and newsfeeds include a story about the gender pay gap or a person who missed out on a job opportunity because of an illness or their ethnic background. However, there is another type of unlawful discrimination that is equally as prevalent in the workplace and is often overlooked – ageism.

Ageism is one of the most reported types of discriminatory behaviour. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, more than a quarter of Australians aged over 50 have experienced age discrimination in the past couple of years. It is an issue that will affect everyone and it has long flown under the radar.

Better healthcare and the need to fund retirement as the cost of living increases is keeping Australians in the workplace longer. While outdated and inaccurate assumptions like older workers being 'set in their ways' and 'just waiting to retire' continue to prevail, the retirement age in Australia has steadily increased, with many people thinking about a second or third career in middle age.(1)

So, what can workplaces do to best manage an ageing workforce and tackle ageism?

According to experts, the key is to challenge the stereotype that mature-aged workers are:

  • set in their ways;
  • resistant to change; and
  • ready to stop working.

Instead, employers should focus on creating a culture that caters to the needs of all ages, as well as fostering intergenerational exchanges. This can be achieved by:

  • re-thinking flexibility;
  • having positive conversations about retirement; and
  • facilitating knowledge transfer and intergenerational relationships.

Re-thinking flexibility

Employers should think more broadly about flexibility in the workplace and offer flexible working arrangements to older workers. Most workplaces promote flexibility to parents returning from a period of parental leave and employees with a disability. However, few workplaces actively promote flexibility for mature-age workers; despite the fact that the Fair Work Act 2009 specifically says that employees over 55 years old can request flexible work arrangements.

Employers should also develop flexible work opportunities, such as job-share arrangements or phased retirement options, that cater to older workers who are not ready to retire or have no desire to retire.

Actively promoting these opportunities to workers can benefit both employers and employees. It can place less pressure on workers to stop working simply because they have reached a certain age and can facilitate a smoother transition to retirement. This could lead to:

  • greater productivity;
  • a transfer of business and operational knowledge; and
  • maintenance of retention rates of otherwise highly skilled and experienced staff.

Have positive conversations about retirement

Employers should strive to create a culture that considers career planning for employees of all ages and does not shy away from discussing future plans. Far from the outdated assumption that employees over a certain age are simply waiting to retire, many older workers have no desire to stop working and would prefer a phased transition to retirement. However, when organisations do not engage with older workers about their career plans in a meaningful or positive way, this can make transition to retirement a stressful process.

Employers should educate employees on matters relating to retirement by facilitating financial planning and 'preparing for retirement' awareness sessions, as well as having discussions with employees about their future plans earlier (ie, when employees are in their mid-40s). This can make the transition to retirement smoother and less daunting.

Facilitate knowledge transfer and intergenerational relationships

Employers should think seriously about the practicalities of working in multi-generational teams and put strategies in place to deal with potential intergenerational conflicts and facilitate knowledge transfer between generations that are working together.

One of the biggest issues resulting from the absence of older workers is the loss of their knowledge and skills when they leave the workforce. Given this, employers should use older workers as mentors to capitalise on their experience and organisational knowledge. By implementing mentoring programmes and ensuring, as far as possible, that different age groups within teams interact, employers can also prevent intergenerational conflict and dispel negative perceptions about older or younger workers.

Thinking seriously about tackling ageism in the workplace is imperative for Australia's rapidly increasing ageing workforce.

For further information on this topic please contact Aaron Goonrey or Jenni Mandel at Lander & Rogers by telephone (+61 2 8020 7700) or email (agoonrey@landers.com.au or jmandel@landers.com.au). The Lander & Rogers website can be accessed at www.landers.com.au.

Endnotes

(1) Further details on the growing implications and challenges of an ageing workforce is available here.

This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.