In 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 27% of older workers had experienced age discrimination at work in the past two years.
Seven years later, little has changed. Age discrimination is still common in the workplace, affecting both older and younger workers.
There is an inherent ambivalence in the age discrimination law. It’s as if we can’t decide whether age discrimination is good or bad; acceptable or unacceptable. This plays out, for example, in the broad exceptions age discrimination law.
It’s time to tackle this problem head on.
Building on the Australian Research Council project “Combating age discrimination in employment”, academic experts from Australia, the UK and Turkey have come together to reinvent workplace age equality. From these discussions, we identified eight priorities to ensure a more equal future in the workplace.
First, we must recognize that aging is not just a problem for older workers; we all have an age, and young workers are also victims of age-related stereotypes and disadvantages.
The similar challenges faced by older workers and young people can be obscured by the myth of a “bottleneck” or lack of jobs created by older workers.
Those seeking to gain a foothold in the labor market are often (but not necessarily) young and, regardless of age, are often excluded from labor law protections, for example when doing unpaid internships or internships. .
This can aggravate other forms of vulnerability. So we need generations to work together to fight bad workplace practices.
Second, age and aging are inherently intersectional, as age overlaps with and compounds other forms of disadvantage.
An intersectional conceptualization of aging better fits individual narratives and lived experiences of disadvantage.
For instance, men may be better able to use legal structures to bring complaints than women, or at least to bring these matters to the public sphere. And yet there are deep silences around the intersection of age and gender, and age and other characteristics – like class.
This can be important when considering the consequences the work might have on workers performing manual work. So we need to approach these intersections in a nuanced way.
Third, we tend to think of people at work as having no past, present, or future burdens that might shape their commitment to employment. And yet, our vision of the future is often a performance, or part of a narrative, that is shaped by our past and present experiences, our identity, our view of risk and precariousness.
Likewise, our notion of our future selves shapes our current behavior and how we navigate structures and systems. Our past and present experiences, including workplace discrimination, shape our prospects for the future.
Looking at inequality through a “future” lens allows us to view age inequality prospectively and understand the future impact of seemingly neutral systems, conditions, and practices.
We need to shift our understanding of age inequality from a “thing” that happens to a “force” that shapes the future, structures and institutions.
Fourth, we need to recognize the potential mismatch between people’s chronological age and their self-identified age.
How people feel is influenced by their physical and mental health, as well as their chronological age. Age is a bodily experience.
So we need to look at age in its embodiment and how it overlaps with health and disability.
Fifth, and related, while we might all want to be the captain of our own “aging ship”, our future is based on shifting sands, as pension reforms, employer needs and our own health can be highly unpredictable.
We must recognize that there will be people who will want to work and others who will need to work. People have to react to these changing circumstances, yet we often lack the time and information to plan our future.
We rarely have the language or the confidence to talk about aging and the aging process; indeed, old age, money and the future form a ‘toxic trinity’ of things we don’t want to think about, which have no language to explain or consider, and which are bound up with stigma.
We need to give people the information and confidence to actively think about and plan for their aging and their personal future..
Sixth, through workplace structures, aging is staged, reproduced and performed.
These structures often “age” inequality. For example, “experience” can become a violent concept, which is used as a weapon to excuse bad behavior by an employer. Even “age-friendly” workplaces can revert to old tropes — thanks to voluntary redundancy programs that seek to “rejuvenate” the workforce by laying off older workers.
The challenge, then, is how to move beyond a facade of respect for older people in the workplace, to achieve meaningful structural change. This change needs to be systemic, integrated and inclusive, but also include small dialogues and conversations in the workplace.
Ageism can often occur through a series of small events that make people feel less worthy because of their age. We need to have open conversations about the implicit biases around age and performance, to better think about how we can focus on the actual performance of individual workers.
We must also recognize that aging is not just an individual challenge; it is shaped and built by our community, our workplaces and our society.
Workplace changes that would support older workers – such as flexible working – would likely benefit all staff as well. Inclusive and age-friendly workplaces allow participants of all ages to be supported and accommodated.
Seventh, we must recognize that the use of certain systems designed to support older workers – such as discrimination law – can actually intensify the damage.
This can happen when people are under the stress and mental burden of complaining or have to put their lives on hold to file a discrimination complaint.
This does not mean that individual rights under age discrimination law are not necessary.
Complaints of age discrimination can have significant repercussions beyond the worker and the workplace they concern.
Likewise, the experience of discrimination can reverberate beyond the individual, to affect our family, friends and communities. We need to reform the Age Discrimination Act to make it more accessible and better address the community impacts of discrimination.
To finish, we must ensure that older people and young people are involved in the development of policies and programs aimed at creating accessible workplaces.
Voice and participatory processes are essential. There may be resistance to this idea, on the grounds that older people are inherently vulnerable. But this does not reflect the diversity of aging and the ability of many older people to contribute to it.
In surveys, for example, data on age is rarely collected and older workers may end up being excluded and not counted. We need better data on age and aging and on age equality at work, including from statutory equality agencies.
Age equality is an issue that needs a voice. He needs lawyers. Yet age as a protected characteristic lacks the strength of community activism associated with other grounds.
We need key members of society trained and educated in age equality, such as doctors and human resource professionals.
Awareness changes behaviors, and we can increase awareness through stronger interaction between and between age groups.
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