Why is there discrimination against older workers? The Toyota employees just dismissed might be dismayed to find that unemployment benefit recipients over 45 are seen as too old by far too many bosses. Australian management tends to be fairly conservative in its hiring, preferring the known and familiar rather than anything they see as risky. Younger workers are seen as safer, for no particular reason, apart from prejudice.

Talk to older job seekers and the story is they rarely even get interviews. Even if they don’t disclose their age (it is illegal to discriminate), they still rarely get a response to their applications. If they do, they may be seen as over-qualified: too experienced and therefore maybe a threat in some way to existing staff, so they are often excluded. One reason is that those sifting the applications are often younger than they are, and may be wary of asking an older person (who is the age of their parents) to come in for an interview.

Any program that effectively intervenes to make it clear that age discrimination is not only illegal but economically inept, is welcome. Apart from the major social damage that occurs for those older people who cannot find a job, the evidence is that under-use of the skills of many of these potential employees damages productivity and the economy.

There are, however, questions on the possible effectiveness of the federal government’s new scheme to encourage the hiring of elderly workers and address age discrimination. It hopes 10,000 people will benefit under the jobs bonus scheme, over four years. The employers will be paid $1000 if they employ a worker aged 50 or older for at least three months. Not a very substantial job tenure!

The announcement doesn’t make clear who is the target group for this fairly minimal subsidy for 2500 people a year. Presumably not the millions of workers over 50 already employed, who may feel a bit dubious about being deemed to be “at risk” of needing this assistance.

The real target needs to be some of the 120,000-plus people over 50 who are on Newstart and registered with job agencies. Most of them would also be among the 90,000-plus people  who have been on this ridiculously inadequate payment for more than two years. Many are already damaged by being the butt of discrimination and failures and the low level payments that keep them well under any poverty line and at the bottom of the OECD level.

Other hidden unemployed older workers are not on any benefits because they have a working spouse and are therefore ineligible. While not in such dire financial need, they are often suffering from loss of self-esteem from futile job hunting efforts and may also have health problems because they feel excluded and rejected. The social costs of unemployment do not get the same level of attention as the economic costs, despite plenty of evidence of the damage.

The main flaw in the government’s approach to unemployment is that it sees the problem as being the unemployed person rather than employers’ prejudices. The tone of the latest government announcement still suggests prejudice is a minor problem.

Mark Butler, the Minister for Ageing, says the scheme will cost $10 million over four years. He says it recognises the contribution mature-aged workers can make. “We still need to deal with a cultural issue in the Australian business community that sometimes looks past the value of older workers,” he said. “We know that older workers have lower absenteeism, they have higher retention rates, and they bring with them extraordinary wisdom and experience. “We just need to push through this barrier that some Australian employers still have.” (my bold). Hardly a clarion call for a major attitude change.

Therefore, the job services providers spend lots of money preparing people for jobs they will not get because of employer prejudices. A fairly limited low-level subsidy will not make much impact on deeply held long-term prejudices that are keeping small and large businesses from choosing the best candidates.

Interestingly, this is one of the few areas where being male is an additional problem. Older men are less likely to find work than older women are. This may be because of the types of jobs on offer. For example, businesses in the expanding care sectors are likely to assume the domestic care potential of women is higher than men. However, the gender issue again highlights the problem as being the employers, not the workers, since many men are capable of and could be interested in such jobs.

The government’s move comes in response to the recent Economic Potential of Senior Australians report, which highlighted the value of employing older people. It is a small response and one that is not likely to add much to other initiatives and subsidies for the long-term unemployed. Give the government’s failure to support any rise in the very inadequate unemployment benefits, the size of this package suggests that the governm1ent is doing little more than making a gesture.

Rachel Siewert quotes the report on the Economic Potential of Senior Australians as noting the low level of payments as the “barriers (that) still inhibit older workers participation”. And even Business Spectator sounds a warning: “As for managers, they will have no choice but to put aside ingrained prejudices for one very good reason. The skills shortage will get worse.”

At least this small gesture has  raised the issue.

Peter Fray

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