‘You’re too old’: Most Australian employers admit to age bias

Mr Burns of THE SIMPSONS. Image: FOX via Getty Images

Australian employers, given the opportunity to speak off the record, admit that age is a factor when hiring or promoting or rewarding.

Publicly, it’s a different matter. In Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age.

Just the assumption that someone might not be as up-to-date with technology than someone younger, or advertising for a “young person” or requiring older people to take some form of test is against the law.

Recruiters Hays surveyed 1,352 employers, who chose to be anonymous, and found more than 70% admit age can be a factor in talent management decisions.

These include development programs, promotional pathways and succession plans.

In the survey, 12% admitted that the age of an employee “always” impacts what works for them in talent management terms. Another 59% said age is “sometimes” a factor.

Just 29% said age has no impact.

“This bias can work against employees of any age,” says Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand.

“A boss could view an employee as too young, too old or too close to parenting age when making talent management decisions.”

For example, one manager may unconsciously question an older worker’s energy, innovation and long-term commitment.

Another manger might may unconsciously question a younger worker’s stability, capability and maturity.

How to head off age discrimination

Deligiannis says regularly talking to your manager about career goals and development opportunities is one way to head off age discrimination.

“If it doesn’t come up in a formal review, request a meeting so you can communicate your ambitions,” he says.

“If your boss is aware of your career plan, they’re less likely to make assumptions based on your age or any other extraneous factor.”

This approach has upside for the manager.

“By sitting down with an individual employee and talking about their career goals, ambitions and training and development needs, you remove your assumptions about a person from your talent management decisions.

“It may also help you identify a bias if you weren’t previously aware of it.”

Australia, like other developed countries, is ageing.

In 2014, about 15% of Australians — 3.4 million of them — were aged 65 and over compared to 8% — 948,100 people — in 1964. Over the same time, the median age increased by almost a decade to 37.3 years from 28.5.

And over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 will hit 25%.

The latest study by Hays supports research at the University of South Australia from the point of view of employees.

A national survey of 2,100 men and women aged 45 years and more, and 100 telephone interviews, found almost a third saw some form of age-related discrimination.

Preliminary results of the study show the most common form of discrimination was negative assumptions about older workers’ skills, learning abilities or cognition.

The older workers also reported limited or no opportunities for promotion or training, working in an organisation that undervalued them and difficulty securing work due to age.


Also prevalent is the patronising attitude of managers and colleagues who assume older workers struggle to pick up new technology or work systems quickly due to their age.

Survey participants also described a subtle pressure from heir colleagues and management to stop working to “make room for the younger generation”. This was regardless of their experience, enduring capabilities or working preferences.

The Human Rights Commission has also done a lot of work on age discrimination at work, with research showing that a third of managers factor the age of workers into their decision making.

And most older workers take no action when they’ve been discriminated against.

The majority didn’t take action because they doubted they would be believed or that anything could be done.

The research, based on a survey of 2,109, confirmed anecdotal evidence that age discrimination is most experienced when older people who are out of a job and looking for work.

Nearly three in five (58%) of those who looked for paid work were a target of discrimination because of their age.

One in five (18%) reported that they were told by prospective employers their skills were not current. The research found that negative perceptions of skills and ability to learn were a common type of age discriminatory behaviour (44%).

Stereotypes of older people are more likely to be believed by the young.

Human Right Commission research shows those under 30 are generally the most negative about the concept of ageing.

Forgetful, hard of hearing

The young associate being old with being forgetful, more likely to be sick, hard of hearing, of diminished mental capacity, and having difficulty learning new things or completing complex tasks.

And some feel they need to act differently when talking to older people.

Australians feel they have to take extra time to explain complex topics to older people.

And some (20% ) avoid conversations about technology with older people as they feel explanations will take a long time and a lot of effort.

And then there are those (13%) who tend to speak louder because assume older people can’t hear that well.

These older Australian report they are often ignored, are treated with disrespect and are subjected to jokes about ageing.

On being invisible

Survey responses to the question: How did this (discrimination) make you feel?

• “Made me feel angry and sad — my response to that person was one day you will get older too and somebody will say that to you.”

• “Invisible, angry, my contribution to society, education etc. was not recognised or appreciated.”

• “I call it being invisible … nobody sees you and your opinion does not matter. I feel very vulnerable.”

• “Made me feel not a member of society, in fact very inadequate and I felt very distressed about it.”

• “Of course it has an impact on you. I wanted to continue working. I was told ‘we don’t have suitable roles and duties for you anymore’. That took me 12 months to get over. I had to have counselling because I thought that I still had a lot to offer and I still want to work therefore it affected my self-esteem.”