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The issue of ageism is one of the elephants in the room for the recruitment industry. I first wrote about the relevance of age with respect to work three years ago, in InSight Issue #6, prompted by the release of the long awaited (for fans anyway) comeback album from veteran 1970s rockers, the Eagles.

Ageism is an issue that will need to be seriously addressed if Australia’s workforce participation rate has any hope of climbing beyond around 65% and towards New Zealand’s impressive mark of over 68% (equating to another 336,000 Australians in the labour market).

Here are some facts from the recent report Social Trends, September 2010: Older people and the labour market   (ABS catalogue 4102.0):

  • People 55 years and older make up 16% (1.9 million people) of the labour force (up from 10%, 30 years ago).
  • Participation in the labour market for over 55’s has climbed from 25% to 34% since 1980.
  • As to be expected, there is a big decline in labour force participation as people age. In the 55-59 category participation is 71%, 51% in the 60-64 age bracket and 24% in the 65-69 category and 4.5% for those 70 years and older.
  • In 2008, 57% of Australians aged 55-64 were employed. This placed Australia 13th, close to the average across the OECD. Countries that had higher employment-to-population ratios for people aged 55-64 included Iceland (83%), New Zealand (72%), Japan (66%) and the USA (62%).
  • The current participation rate by gender for people 55 years and over in Australia is 42% for men and 27% for women. In 2001 it was 32% for men and only 16% for women.
  • Older workers were also more likely than their younger counterparts to be self-employed. Of employed men aged 55 years and over, 24% were self-employed, compared with 12% of younger men. Older women were less likely to be self-employed (15%) than older men. However, they were twice as likely to be self-employed than younger women (7%).
  • The underemployment rate among older workers was 4.5% for men and 6.1% for women.
  • Older workers with higher non-school qualifications were significantly more likely to be employed than those with lower skills. In 2009, there were just under half a million people (equal to 18% of those aged 55-74 years) who had a bachelor degree or higher.
  • Of these, around three-quarters (76%) were employed, compared with just over half (53%) of those without a post-school qualification, who were employed. This 23 percentage point difference drops to only 16% for workers under 55.
  • In June 2010 the unemployment rate for 55 years and over was 3.1% versus 5.9% for workers under 55.
  • In the year to June 2010, 46% of unemployed older people had been looking for work for six months or more, compared with 32% of those aged less than 55 years.
  • The main difficulty in finding work   reported by around a third of older unemployed people was that they are considered too old by employers (36% of men and 28% of women).
  • Over the course of 2008-09 there were 144,000 people 55 years and over (59% of them women) who came out of retirement and returned to the workforce. Around one-third of these said the reason they came back into the labour force was because they were bored (34%) or because an interesting opportunity came up (13%). A further 37% returned to the labour force for financial reasons.
  • Of those older people (aged 55-69 years) who wanted and were available to work, but were not actively looking for a job in 2008-09, more than three-quarters (76%) said that the ability to work part-time hours would be important in determining whether they joined the labour force.
  • Similarly, being able to work a set number of hours on set days was an important factor for 68% of older people. The majority also said being able to sit down (68%) and take breaks (61%) would be important factors.

The elephant in the room is the common situation faced by recruiters every day when the client (external or internal) either explicitly (‘don’t send me anyone over 40′) or implicitly (‘our culture is young and dynamic’) makes age a key selection criteria.

Recruiters know that they should not discriminate against a candidate based on age but feel an obligation to recommend candidate(s) that fit the criteria requested by the client. The risk, of course, is that the client takes their business elsewhere if their wishes are not adhered to by the recruiter.

As I keep preaching in these pages; job performance is a function of technical skills, behavioural competencies, and motivation. It is not a function of age, gender, years of experience, ethnicity etc.

My previous rant, and proposed solutions on this topic can be found in InSight Issue 83 and InSight Issue 84, when I tackled ‘Australian experience’ (or more accurately, lack of it) as an (almost always) false barrier to referring appropriate candidates to clients.

There is no way out; the population is aging, the workforce is aging, the economy continues to grow and the demand for labour continues to grow. Older workers are going to be increasingly an important labour source. Get used to it.

The sooner you are willing to, and know how to, tackle the issue of ageism (either yours and/or your clients’) then the sooner you will gain a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

When are you going to start?

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Lisa J

The thing that scares me Ross is that I am turning 40 this year! When I started in recruitment in 1996 I was told that it was very hard to get people over the age of 40 into jobs and that overall it was a waste of time to consider them. Now I am on the countdown to 40 myself I am horrified at how easy it was to assume that the over 40's were dinosaurs reluctant to change and who inevitably would not know one end of a computer from the other.

Of course, the bright young things of the nineties learned how to use a computer and ARE technically stronger than the 40 year old of '96 (computer wise). But I just know that there are going to be bright young things of the (what the hell do we call the 2010's?) who are dismissive of anyone born before 1970 as being old school and least likely to get the value of twitter. And I admit, I struggle to see the social value in Demi Moore posting pictures of her bum on twitter.

But now I am entering the age of being a grown up and can no longer pretend to be a bright young thing (gravity has had a dreadful effect on my bum and my taste in music is tragically old fashioned) I find it somewhat sad to think that people may simply look at me or see my birthdate and assume I am on the down hill run to my 'use by date'.

I guess that there will always be prejudice against older workers, but now that I think about it, I may have to get over my prejudice against Gen Yrs who seem to think its a brilliant idea to change jobs every 9 months because there must be something more out there, or that they are not being fulfilled and challenged *rolling eyes*.

Yeah now that I think about it, give me the older workers any day!

Jonathan Rice

Great comment Lisa J – hilarious. It's funny as the recruitment industry needs to look closely at itself on this issue too. I recruit for New Zealand's recruitment industry and it is common for my clients to infer that recruiters between the ages of 26-35 would be most desirable.

Having said that my last 2 placements were 40 so perhaps we in NZ are starting to get over this prejudice at last. But in the years I have been doing this I have only once placed a recruiter over the age of 50 – and that was a complete mission.

We need to practice what we preach to our own clients.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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