Recently the Australian Government announced its response to the Final Report of the Advisory Panel on the Economic Potential of Senior Australians (EPSA) which proposes a range of funding initiatives to motivate employers to take on older workers. But do such well-meaning attempts at policy development actually encourage ageist attitudes among the public?
Age features heavily in public debate concerning the Australian workforce. We regularly read about studies showing that older workers are considered ‘dinosaurs’ by co-workers and managers, and face immense hurdles when looking for work. Conversely, the reports tell us that so-called Generation Ys do not want to work as hard as their parents – they work to live rather than live to work.
The issue is how society responds to commentary about older and younger workers that almost always casts them in a negative light.
As part of its response, the Government proposes that Aus$10 million be allocated for the introduction of a Aus$1000 Jobs Bonus for employers who recruit an older jobseeker and retain them for more than three months. Also proposed is Aus$15.6 million to extend the Corporate Champions program, which provides support to employers who wish to promote older worker employment at their workplace.
The intention is to help overcome the initial reluctance of some employers to appoint older jobseekers. But by drawing attention to older workers in this fashion, policymakers may simply be alerting employers of the need to be wary of a particular segment of the workforce. A segment whose deficiencies are deemed so great that they require government subsidies to find a job. Added to this, such schemes are administratively burdensome for employers who might not consider the incentive as being worth the effort.
The Opposition’s Employment Participation plan contains a very similar proposal for a Aus$3250 Seniors Employment Incentive Payment for employers that hire workers aged 50 or older. This plan also includes yet another attempt at age-based policymaking, this time targeting young people. The Opposition proposes to introduce new Job Commitment Bonus Payments to encourage long-term unemployed young Australians to find a job and keep it. Those aged 18 to 30 who have been unemployed for 12 months or more and are on NewStart Allowance or Youth Allowance will receive a Aus$2500 Job Commitment Bonus if they get a job and remain off welfare for a continuous period of 12 months.
According to the Opposition such payments provide an incentive to get young unemployed Australians off welfare and into paid work and, by making the payments conditional upon retaining work for an extended period, will encourage those who secure a job to remain employed. However, such an approach risks feeding stereotypes of young people as lacking a desirable work ethic.
Aged-based public policy is not the answer. Chronological age is a poor predictor of the employment-related needs of an individual, and public programs that use it as a selection criterion send the wrong signals to employers, workers and society as a whole.
Such policies risk deepening age prejudice and institutionalising age discrimination, against both young and old. Such an approach is, by its very nature, ageist, and can in fact further erode self-worth by categorising some people as ‘difficult to employ’ or ‘workshy’.
Much of the present public discourse may only reinforce the prejudices of a society already obsessed with age. Instead, we need to see more examples of older workers making successful transitions to employment and the many thoughtful employers who are embracing the talents of people, regardless of their age. This way will lead to a reshaping of public attitudes. Here the extension of the Government’s Corporate Champions program is a sensible approach, if these examples of employer good practice are widely promoted amongst the business community.
Above all, policymakers need to avoid falling into the trap of offering simplistic solutions that could add to the difficulties faced by segments of the workforce. There is no doubt that ageism exists, but the challenge now is for commentators, advocacy groups and policymakers to tackle this positively, not merely to remind us.
Professor Philip Taylor researches age and the labour market at Monash University.
Philip Taylor, PhD
Director, Research and Graduate Studies
Monash University, Gippsland Campus