From older workers to generational solidarity. Let’s rethink ageing at work

Recently, a raft of public policy measures targeting older workers have emerged as governments internationally have become concerned about the prospect of ageing populations decimating public finances in the years ahead.

One focus of activity has been tackling age prejudice, portrayed as being a major impediment to older workers’ labour force participation. However, the value of a specific policy focus on older workers is contestable and viewing issues of their employment primarily through a discrimination lens may be both overstating and oversimplifying the problems they face.

First, what is an older worker, or a mature age worker, to use the ageist Australian vernacular?

No-one seems to be sure but they have occasionally been referred to as anyone aged over 45, with the obvious problem that this assumes a 45-year-old worker and a 70-year-old worker might have more in common than, say, a 40-year-old and a 45-year-old. This seems implausible.

“Perhaps ultimately, a better starting position is age-neutral policy making, whether it be by governments or in workplaces.”

Observers have also pointed to increasing divergence in terms of capabilities, capacities and orientations as people age. It is difficult to effectively target public policy at a group that is difficult to define and with a diverse range of needs.

Additionally, whether public policies focused on older workers may do more harm than good is a question worthy of consideration. So, for instance, wage subsidies aimed at employers employing the over-50s have been used by both Coalition and Labor governments recently, although the OECD, among others, has pointed out that such measures may stigmatise older people. It would be useful, therefore, to understand the apparent recent success of the present Restart wage subsidy.

Nonetheless, advocates for older people might be advised to reflect on whether age barriers are best overcome by measures that single out older people for special treatment or whether such an approach may, perversely, risk embedding age prejudice in society. Perhaps ultimately, a better starting position is age-neutral policy making, whether it be by governments or in workplaces.

Misunderstanding the problem of age discrimination

Moreover, there is, perhaps, a misunderstanding of the problem of age discrimination in society. British academic Colin Duncan has argued that age prejudice differs from other forms of discrimination in that there is no single, clearly defined, oppressed group. Everyone is of an age and can be subject to age discrimination. 

If this proposition is correct it opens the door to wider consideration of a phenomenon usually associated, in Australia at any rate, with the old. Here it is notable that recent Diversity Council Australia research found that young workers were almost twice as likely to report experiencing discrimination and/or harassment at work than older workers.

“Recognising the value of promoting generational solidarity in the workplace may be a critical step in overcoming labour market age barriers.”

Added to this, consideration of the existing research literature would lead us to conclude that age discrimination may not be so widespread as is sometimes claimed. Thus, while the recent Human Rights Commission’s recent Willing to Work inquiry reported evidence that around a quarter of older Australians overall had experienced age discrimination, other recent research by Australian think tank Per Capita found a much lower incidence.

If the latter research is correct, this is good news for older people, who if they believed much public commentary, might be anticipating later careers characterised by discrimination and disadvantage.

If the real extent of age discrimination is disputed, there is also strong evidence from recent research undertaken at the University of Melbourne that its incidence is in decline. Other research suggests that older jobseekers often perceive age prejudice, but it seems this may not be a problem they share with most of the rest of the workforce.

Acknowledging that people may experience age barriers across the life course offers a fresh perspective on issues of ageing and work. Economists have demonstrated that viewing old and young as being in competition ultimately benefits neither.

Thus, recognising the value of promoting generational solidarity in the workplace may be a critical step in overcoming labour market age barriers.

This article was first published by the Diversity Council Australia blog.

Philip Taylor is Professor of Management at Federation University Australia, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

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