A former HR executive turned PhD researcher has opened up on his experience of age discrimination by employers, as a new campaign to highlight the damage of ageism is unveiled.
At an event hosted by The Benevolent Society in Sydney, a coalition of organisations for social change and advocates for older Australians officially launched the Every Age Counts campaign in a bid to highlight and change the “entrenched” attitudes against older people.
It follows research by the Society earlier this year that found many older Australians have faced blatant and open hostility by would-be employers simply because of their age.
Robert Tickner AO, chair of the humanitarian aid organisation CHS Alliance in Geneva, Switzerland, told the gathering that age discrimination or ageism is “probably the last bastion of stigmatisation and discrimination tolerated by our society”.
“It is an entrenched social norm,” he said.
Ageism, which Mr Tickner defined as “stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment based solely upon age” has enormous implications for society, by robbing businesses, organisations, communities and individuals of “potentially valuable contributions”.
Age discrimination commissioner Dr Kay Patterson AO, said that among Australian employers, almost one-third confess to having an age above which they are reluctant to hire someone – and that age is generally just 50.
That is despite the retirement age being 15 years later than this, and the number of Australians aged over 65 expected to double by 2050.
Dr Patterson cited the example of one man she met who, at age 102, is still working and drives an 8-cylinder car, as evidence that skills, merit and abilities differ across individuals rather than age brackets.
Senior executive went ‘from rooster to feather duster’
Tim Hessell, 62, had spent more than 30 years working in human resources for large companies until a number of events – including corporate restructures and the global financial crisis – forced the senior executive out into the job market.
He told My Business that it has, and continues to be, a struggle to regain full-time employment despite his years of experience in the field.
“I found myself going from a rooster to a feather duster,” he said.
Initially Mr Hessell said he worked in a consulting capacity and then contracting, but that “work became harder and harder to attract”.
“For a time, I used to keep a record of the number of interviews I went for, and was singularly unsuccessful in ongoing interviews,” he said.
“That may have been a personal reflection – I didn’t have skills – I accept that. But more often, it was a palpable sense that I felt ‘you’re overqualified’, ‘you’re this, you’re that’ … whatever it was, you were never quite what was required.”
Mr Hessell admitted that left him feeling like a victim for a time, but he noticed that former colleagues and other people around his age were also struggling to find work, so he saw an opportunity to “reinvent” himself.
“I want to keep working and I needed to try and understand a little bit more about what’s going on with companies and why don’t they think older workers are as attractive to hire”.
Pervasive attitudes working against individuals, long-term business objectives
That belief led Mr Hessell to undertake a PhD at the University of Newcastle, where his research has focused on the attitudes and beliefs of senior HR figures in corporate Australia.
That research has yet to be published, but he said there are some revealing indicative findings.
Mr Hessell suggested that being labelled “overqualified” for a role is often being used as a euphemism for “too old”.
“One of the major findings [of my research] is that there is a lot of ageism baked into institutions,” he said.
“To me, there is a palpable sense of ageism at the point of hire.”
According to Mr Hessell, some of his findings are that:
- Younger workers are described and thought of as being and having talent, whereas older workers are labelled “experienced”: “Why can’t an older person be regarded as experienced AND talented?”
- The traditional business hierarchy is built on age, where low-level jobs are done by youngsters who then grow and develop during their time with the business. But that modern workplaces are trying to apply this rigid structure to a need for particular skills, instead of hiring the best person for a particular job regardless of their age.
- From a management point of view, it is easier in the short-term to build teams of employees of a similar age rather than build diverse teams for the longer-term benefit of the business.
Somewhat more controversially, Mr Hessell suggested that many, though not all, businesses effectively only pay lip service to equality and diversity, and only focus on mandated or measurable aspects rather than proactively embracing change and improvement.
“What I’m writing about in my PhD is the fact that diversity is spoken about but not truly practiced, and it’s based purely on gender,” he said.
Mr Hessell suggested that many HR departments and recruitment personnel don’t even have age diversity on their radar, because gender equality is a more politically sensitive aspect, and so they are focusing primarily, if not entirely, on closing the gender gap.
“The way I understand it [from my focus groups] is that there’s a whole sense of public shame if we’re a public company and we’re not seen to be supporting this [gender equality] agenda,” he explained.
“It’s a lot of external stakeholders that are putting pressure, I think, on organisations to project a positive image about what they were doing in the diversity space.
“There is no, in my sample, material progress or willingness to really truly engage in the age diversity debate.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.