Better opportunities for older people will transform your organisation: Tips from the Age Discrimination Commissioner


It’s the reality that employers are only just beginning to address: the Australian workforce is getting older, fast.

As Generation X-ers begin to enter their 50s, NFPs need to plan for the challenges of an older workforce, but also recognise the significant benefits that longer, healthier careers can bring to the sector.

Susan Ryan AO is Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner. It’s her job to address the barriers to equality and participation faced by mature workers, older Australians and young people.

Susan sat down with us to chat about what NFP leaders should be doing to better support older workers, and how they can prepare their organisation to be resilient in the face of the “longevity revolution”.

You’ve spoken in the past about the “longevity revolution”. Can you explain what the longevity revolution is?

The longevity revolution goes like this: In 1909 when the aged pension was introduced only about 4 per cent of Australians lived long enough to get it – until the age of 65 – and even then they died shortly after.

Now the average age people live to is 84 for women and 80 for men – many of the people who read this will be living to 90 and even 100! Also, most people are healthy until the last few years of their very long lives.

Why should not-for-profit organisations care about older workers?

First of all people want to ­– and in most cases need to – work past the age of 65. We know that they want to work longer through surveys and research and we know that they need to because of the financial circumstances of older people retiring.

Secondly, some workplaces are excluding people from their 50s onwards and this is a terrible waste of peoples’ ability.

What are some of the myths associated with older workers? What can organisational leaders be doing to dispel these myths?

A HR manager who is 32 might be interviewing people for a job, and – unless they have no unconscious bias – they will be drawn to people younger than themselves.

They may have concerns about hiring someone in their 50s to report to a manager in their 30s. They will look to young people and think: “Their degree is up to date, they are experienced in new technologies,” and unconsciously they are thinking the candidate will be a welcome part of the social aspect of their organisation. They’ll be a better fit.

That decision is actually against the interests of an organisation. They should be looking at the best people to fit the job they are trying to fill. Look at what you want from this person – what skills, what experience, and particularly for NFPs, what networks they will bring.

As for what the HR manager should do, I think they should clarify their concerns. If they believe there is a concern about age, verbalise it.

Ask: “What are my concerns?” “Am I worried about social fit?” If so, forget it.

“Am I concerned that this person hasn’t done any retraining on new technology recently?” Then ask – “If I offer him training would he or she do it?” Usually people would say yes.

“Am I concerned that if I spend money up-skilling this person will they stay long enough to get my investment back?” The answer is ‘yes’ because we have statistics showing that people in their 50s stay longer in one job.

What are the greatest challenges facing NFP HR managers and leaders if workers will soon be retiring at 70 instead of 65?

I think the greatest shift is overcoming all the negative stereotypes. They’re everywhere – they are in the community, in social media, in advertising.

Just try and say “I want to look at the facts” and “I want to look at what our organisation needs”. Expose yourself to competent older people still contributing. If you go to the Age Positive website you can see lots of examples!

I sometimes use the analogy of the music industry. People will pay squillions to see Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan perform and they’re in their 70s. They don’t think about age. They say: “I loved them when they were 25 and I love them when they’re 75.” They are prepared to put age aside to spend money, travel to other cities and line up to see them.

Try and think of your workforce like that. Yes this person might be 60 but do they have what we want for our organisation? If they do, give them a go.

What are some first steps a not-for-profit could take to better support older staff?

The first step is to consult them. Employers should be having conversations with older staff about their concerns and about how to better support them.

For example, an older worker may want more flexibility in their working hours to look after ageing parents or grandchildren. It may be beneficial for the employer and employee to set up flexible working hours or days – so having those conversations could be a win-win.

Older workers may also want to ease into retirement over a number of years by slowly reducing their work hours. If you discuss these things you may find something that may suit everyone. For example, you could bring in a younger person for 1-2 days a week during the transition.

The most important thing is that these discussions are held in a no-risk way. The employee should feel they can raise them without the threat of a redundancy.

What about over the long term?

I think organisations should be doing strategic planning and looking ten years into the future at what sort of organisation they’ll become. Alongside thinking about whether they’ll be bigger, or expanding their services or introducing new activities, they should also think about “who are the people we need over the next ten year period?”

I think a younger manager may see that over the next ten years, if they do everything right they will inevitably have more people in their 60s and 70s working in their organisations. They should then be thinking, “I should open myself up to that and look for the strengths in it” and not think, “Oh my God, what will I do?!”

I think there’s a huge potential for organisations and for our whole society to become stronger by creating better opportunities for older people. I know older people are ready for it.

Does your organisation have a policy or strategy for the ageing workforce? Please share any tips you have for tackling this issue in the comments below!

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