The age of opportunity
Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.
– 20th century American writer, activist and feminist Betty Friedan
Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan treasures Friedan’s words, which she tweeted recently as part of her ongoing campaign to reshape the nation’s view of growing old.
“We have to change the view that ageing inevitably means degeneration, dependency, giving up,” the Hon Susan Ryan AO said.
“Friedan’s comment is on the mark. It is how many older people feel; they want to be going into a new stage of opportunity.”
The challenge, though, is that business, community and the media “simply don’t regard people in their 60s and 70s as people who have another 20 to 30 years of active life ahead of them”.
“The message is that once you have hit 60 it is time to disappear. Older people often feel they are left out, excluded. Sometimes they use the term invisible,” Ms Ryan said.
As the country’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner, it is Ms Ryan’s job – and passion – to combat such age discrimination in business, the media, government and society in general.
When she started in her role in 2011, the former Labor Senator was quoted as saying there was a disturbing tendency to pigeon-hole older people as slow learners, rigid in their ways and as generally inactive in retirement.
She acknowledges perceptions are changing but not as fast as she would like.
“I’ve been able to commission research showing that those prejudices are still very deeply held,” she said.
Her main focus is the workplace, since the evidence shows many older people are keen to stay employed in some capacity. Ms Ryan cites National Seniors research that reveals there are two million people over 55 who are not working, even though they want to and are capable of doing so.
Many are stymied by ongoing age discrimination.
Research commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals that one in 10 businesses surveyed have an age above which they will not recruit – and that average age is 50.
In an opinion piece posted on onlineopinion.com.au, Ms Ryan also points to figures that show over 55s are likely to be unemployed more than twice as long as Australians aged 25 to 34, at an average of 75 weeks.
The research shows half of business decision-makers regard older employees as being at higher risk of redundancy. Around a quarter or more believe older employees have difficulty adapting to change, are difficult to teach new things, are unlikely to have the same technical skills or to stay in the role as long as younger employees.
“Yet none of these damaging beliefs reflects the real situation. And research by National Seniors backs this up,” she writes.
“Older workers are in fact willing to undertake training and to work in mixed age teams. They are less likely to take sick leave and are the most reliable age group if you consider absenteeism, loyalty, and dedication to tasks.”
Ms Ryan has made it her mission to tackle employers’ attitudes to older workers, believing the structural changes required will follow.
These include greater flexibility in the workplace, opportunities for part-time work and working from home, and unpaid breaks to deal with health issues or care for aged parents without risking ongoing employment.
Employers also need to pay attention to the skill needs of older workers.
“It is true many of them will be ready for upgrading, refreshing of their skills and there are government funds to assist in that happening.”
Ms Ryan says peak employer bodies generally agree with her views but are aware their members need to change their attitudes.
She believes a key way to achieve the desired changes is to keep the public debate going, both formally and informally, in the media and through social media.
Her vision is that over the next 10 years there will be a vast increase in the number of people who are working “probably up until around 70, although I don’t want to put a particular age on it”.
“Instead of thinking we should work to about 60 (when most people retire from full-time work) we would say we want to keep working until 70 and beyond that we want opportunity to plan volunteering, a bit of part-time work, self development, taking up interests,” she said.
“I want people to feel that this is the normal phase of life. It is not something to be feared. They will say ‘Okay, for the next 10 to 20 years this is what I want to do and I know how to do it and society will let me do it’.”