Ageism obstructs older workers

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Despite worker shortage, older people are deterred from re-entering the workforce due to age discrimination. Photo: Macey Turner

The unemployment rate in Australia has plummeted this year leaving businesses across the country desperate for employees, but older job seekers still face barriers in gaining employment.

At 3.4 per cent, an unemployment rate this low hasn’t been seen since the 1970s and has left an unprecedented shortage of workers.

To address the shortage, the Albanese government last week announced a one-off income credit allowing pensioners to earn an additional $4000 without reducing their pension.

Pension earners are usually discouraged from remaining in the workforce by income threshold tests, which assess how much they can earn from paid employment before it affects how much pension they receive.

In a statement, the Prime Minister and Minister for Social Services said: “The measure is designed to enable pensioners who want to work to immediately boost the supply of labour to help meet shortages.”

However, the pension threshold raise may not be a fix all solution in attracting older people back into the workforce.   

A 2021 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 18,100 job seekers aged 55 and older had trouble in finding work as they were considered too old by employers.

Western Australian Council of the Ageing chief executive Christine Allen said while any incentive which allows older people to re-enter the workforce is a bonus, the pension threshold raise was not enough.

Ms Allen said most older people return or remain in the workforce for financial reasons, or because they do not want to retire, and a $4000 threshold increase alone was unlikely to convince older people to change their lifestyle and return to work.

A 2021 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission found only 9.7 per cent of surveyed organisations were proactively recruiting older workers, and one third of respondents believed their organisation’s recruitment practices negatively impacted older workers.

Age discrimination in employment is illegal under the Age Discrimination Act of 2004 but it can be difficult to moderate.

John Curtin Law Clinic clinical supervisor Heather Williams deals with employment law.  She said that not all age-discrimination is overt or direct.

“It can be indirect like a policy that everyone has to do something that an older worker is more likely to struggle with. So, in those cases, it’s less obvious and can be harder to prove.”

Heather Williams

Ms Allen said the solution to getting more older people into the workforce lies in addressing age discrimination in policy to provide an inclusive work environment. She said older people provide stability, mentorship, and valuable expertise which advantage employers far beyond any assumed disadvantages.

The proposed pension threshold increase is awaiting passage of the amendment to the social services legislation through parliament. It is expected to be available from September 20, 2022 until June 30, 2023.