With more than 200,000 Australians on unemployment benefits, stories of age discrimination and barriers to employment are all too common among older workers.
Steve Woolfrey, 61, has been out of full-time work for eight months. He took a voluntary redundancy in November last year after 17 years with the same company, which was slowly winding up its operations.
His age is the reason for his failure to find another job, and his “wealth of experience” in manufacturing and engineering counts for nothing, he says.
“I can’t see anyone wanting to employ me when they can employ someone who is 35 or 40 years of age doing the same work.”
Earlier in his career, Mr Woolfrey was a trainer for three years, helping long-term unemployed older Australians find work, many of whom faced the same difficulties.
“None of them found mainstream work again. It was real piecemeal kind of stuff.”
The only work Mr Woolfrey has found is odd jobs at the Men’s Shed Association, house repairs for the Caroline Chisholm Society, and running a training course here and there. He is scouring the Internet and newspapers for a more permanent role.
Mr Woolfrey thinks the 50+ age group has very little chance of re-entering the workforce once they leave, or get pushed out.
“I do not think they’ve got much chance of finding re-employment, not in the mainstream,” he says.
The data looks grim
The latest research and data suggests that Mr Woolfrey is right, and that the barriers to employment for older Australians are increasing.
More than 200,000 Australians aged over 50 receive unemployment benefits, according to new figures given to Greens Senator Rachel Siewert – an increase of 45 per cent in four years.
The unemployment rate for those aged 45-54 was 4.2 per cent last month, up from 3.9 in June 2013 and 3.4 per cent at the same time in 2012, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
Unemployment amongst the 60-64 age bracket was even higher – 5.2 per cent (June 2014), 5.3 per cent (June 2013), and 3.4 per cent (June 2012 and June 2011).
According to the same ABS data, the number of unemployed married Australians aged 45-54 looking for full time work increased to 56,000 last month, up from 46,100 at the same time last year, and from 36,000 the year before.
Of course, Australia’s ageing population will account for some of these increases.
Associate Professor Briony Dow, director of health promotion at the National Ageing Research Institute, says “negative perceptions about older people” are partly to blame for these disheartening figures.
Many employers are reluctant to take on or retain older workers, and do not adapt their workplaces or types of work to the needs of older workers, according to the Associate Professor.
Discrimination is not always intentional. “Many of the barriers are around workplace flexibility,” Associate Professor Dow explains.
The Age Discrimination Act has, since 2004, outlawed discrimination on the basis of age in the workplace, education, accommodation, and getting or using services – such as banking.
Since it was empowered to investigate discrimination in 2009, the Fair Work Ombudsman has received more than 80 requests for assistance relating to age discrimination.
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James told The New Daily that discrimination against employees on the grounds of age is “totally unacceptable” and “won’t be tolerated”.
“We take such conduct very seriously because of the impact it has on individual workers and the labour market generally,” Ms James says.
“Discriminating against workers because of their age can have a terrible impact on their self-respect and dignity and deprive them of an equal opportunity to make a positive economic benefit to the company and the wider community,” she says.
A great disconnect
Associate Professor Dow says there is a strange disconnect between the rising rates of unemployment amongst older Australians and our society’s economic and social realities.
Our society is ageing. Retirement is expensive. It makes sense that more Australians will need to work for longer, she says.
“I think there are benefits for keeping people working for longer, as well as the individual benefits,” she says.
The good news
“If we look to the future, we expect that we are going to have a shrinking work force. It’s going to become more of an issue. I think everyone will start to agree that we need to keep older people in the workforce,” says Associate Professor Dow.