Public policy, age discrimination and Australian older workers: Solutions in search of a problem?

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In industrialised nations, age discrimination is widely viewed as a serious impediment to older workers’ employment, and age discrimination policies generally focus on jobseekers and workers aged over 50. These policies appear not to consider other sociological factors that may influence older workers’ prospects or the experiences of younger workers. To assess the limitations of this current focus, we examine the concept of everyday discrimination by conducting a survey of a nationally representative sample of working Australians. Our results indicate that discrimination was experienced by 25 per cent of respondents, but there was little evidence of age differences in the extent of experiences. We argue that there may be an overemphasis on tackling age discrimination facing older workers, which obscures proper consideration of barriers to their participation, and may entrench ageist perceptions among labour market participants.

Faced with population ageing, and associated concerns about the sustainability of social welfare systems and the future labour supply to support economic growth, governments in Australia and internationally have increasingly focused on delaying the age at which workers finally withdraw from the labour market. Such efforts have included legislation proscribing age discrimination in the labour market, employer awareness-raising campaigns and wage subsidies aimed at overcoming an apparent employer reluctance to employ older workers.

Recent public policy in Australia has focused particularly on changing employer behaviours by implementing various measures targeting the employment of older workers. While the broad thrust of Australian public policy has considered age discrimination as a phenomenon exclusive to older people, the efficacy of this approach is questionable. Internationally, there has been recognition of the difficulties of disentangling discrimination on the basis of age from other sociological factors such as gender, race and/or class.

This study adopts a more indirect approach to the measurement of workplace discrimination, drawing on the concept of everyday discrimination (see table for survey results). Such everyday experiences of prejudice may not be classified by those experiencing them as instances of discrimination, but may nonetheless have deleterious consequences for workers.

Conclusions

The findings of this study indicate that discrimination is a phenomenon that affects a minority of those in work, but with younger people more likely to report experiencing it. Overall, there appears to be a broad homogeneity of experiences of everyday discrimination across age groups, i.e. older workers are no more likely to experience such aspects of discrimination than younger workers. While this finding does not imply the absence of labour market barriers affecting older workers, at least some of those they do face appear to be similarly experienced by other workers.

Some methodological limitations to the study should be acknowledged: given the relatively low response rate it is not possible to rule out sample biases, and there may have been limitations in terms of the questions used to assess everyday discrimination. Also, the study was of people in paid work and ignored the non-employed who may be more likely to experience labour market age discrimination.

From a social policy perspective the study indicates that there would be merit in expanding consideration of age discrimination to include younger people.

Arguably, based on these findings and the wider literature, the age discrimination problem in the Australian labour market may also be somewhat overstated, or at least lacking focus.

Characterising the labour market challenges facing older workers as primarily being a consequence of ageist attitudes and behaviours risks overlooking other critical factors inhibiting their labour market prospects such as structural shifts in the Australian economy. More invidiously perhaps, an overemphasis on ageism and age discrimination in public debate may have the perverse effect of alerting employers to the supposed deficits of older workers, with the consequence that labour market age barriers are made that much harder to overcome.

Reported experiences of everyday discrimination

  • Receiving insufficient information to do your job properly 54%
  • Being ignored by your colleagues or treated as if you didn’t exist 31%
  • Not getting the opportunities you needed to be competitive for promotions 27%
  • Your work performance being evaluated unfairly 26%
  • Not getting privileges others received 25% Being left out of a social gathering at work 23%
  • Being excluded from a work meeting 22%
  • Feeling as though you were being pushed out 22% Being passed over for promotion 20%
  • Insulting jokes or comments 20%
  • Being set up for failure 17%
  • Your property being damaged 10%

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This Working Paper was produced by the CSIRO-Monash Superannuation Research Cluster a collaboration between the CSIRO and Monash University, the University of Western Australia, Griffith University and the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In addition, the Cluster engages on an ongoing basis with a range of industry supporters, government agencies and industry peak bodies who assist in providing guidance and feedback to researchers, providing data, and in disseminating outcomes. The purpose of the Super Research Cluster is to examine issues pertaining to the future of Australia’s superannuation and retirement systems.