Employers that fail to meet the needs of an ageing workforce are missing out, experts warn, as a new report found 90% of people believe that ageism exists.

Strategies such as supporting people through various life stages were becoming increasingly important as people remained in the workforce for longer, Ai Group’s People & Culture Director Belinda Woods said.

Succession plans, buddy systems and portfolio careers are also gaining traction in recognition of the value that highly skilled and experienced older workers bring to a cross-generational workforce.

“Diversity and inclusion and having different ideas and experiences are always going to be valuable,” Ms Woods said.

"Everyone brings their own experience to the table and has a different perspective on things, whether you have 30 years of experience, three months of experience or no experience. Everybody has a valuable opinion and valuable insights.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s new report, What’s age got to do with it?, explores what Australians think about age and ageism — stereotyping and/or discriminating against people based on their age.

It found 63% of Australians had experienced ageism in the past five years and a similar proportion thought ageism was directed at people across all three adult age groups: young adults, middle-aged people and older people.

The report found that at work, young adults are most likely to experience ageism as being treated in a condescending way. Middle-aged people are most likely to experience ageism as being turned down for a job. Older people, meanwhile, are more likely to experience ageism as being helped without being asked.

Ms Woods said such discrimination tended to be indirect, rather than overt.

“It will come through in offhand remarks such as ‘they don’t really need to know about that’ or ‘we’ll get the younger people to do our social media because they know it better’,” she said.

“Maybe they do, but that should be based on skill, rather than age. Those things come through in very indirect ways."

Ai Group’s Nicola Street, National Manager Workplace Relations Policy, said ageism was an area of discrimination that everyone could be vulnerable to.

“It affects people at different stages of their life, which can prompt greater empathy such as: ‘I could be in that situation in 10 years' time’ or ‘I was in that situation 15 years ago, I remember what that was like’,” she said.

“That personal connection can prompt managers and coworkers to think about how they engage with their colleagues and what assumptions they may be making.

“Employers need to ensure they are aware of some of the negative and inaccurate assumptions about age diversity, particularly if they’re managing a cross-generational workforce.

“Employees, meanwhile, should also be aware of some of their attitudes and realise they can also contribute to negative experiences in the workplace.

“A lot of discriminatory attitudes can be unintentionally shared among coworkers.

“It might be thinking ‘that person can’t do this, they’re too old so I’ll pick up the slack’ or ‘this person is quite young and inexperienced and isn’t going to be putting in the hard yards. They’re not interested.’ These assumptions are not only disparaging but often inaccurate.

“Given that we no longer have compulsory retirement ages in Australia and access to the aged pension will be at a later age for many people, employers will be required to address how they recruit and retain older workers, particularly in a labour market with skill shortages.”

Ai Group’s Principal Adviser Workplace Relations Stewart Rinkevich said the value placed on succession planning was highlighted when he presented at last week’s Best Practice Network forum, Managing an Ageing Workforce.

“The key takeaway was more about ensuring employers capture the knowledge of their longer-term employees, so they don’t lose that when they leave, rather than negative issues such as ‘how do I manage these employees?’” Mr Rinkevich said.

Pairing highly skilled and experienced longer-term workers with younger employees in a buddy system to ensure that wealth of knowledge was imparted was one way of doing this, he added.

Ms Street said employers benefited from being open to flexible work given that portfolio careers were becoming more common and that many older workers wanted to maintain a connection to the workforce outside the full-time employment model.

“You can tap into skilled and experienced people who don’t want to work five days a week in a big firm anymore,” she said.

Ms Woods said organisations were also increasingly looking at how to support people through stages of life aside from parenting.

“There’s a huge focus on working parents, which remains relevant, but our population is ageing so support for factors like menopause, caring for elderly parents and transitioning to retirement is gaining traction,” she said.

“There needs to be a continued focus on supporting people to retirement. We are seeing more cases of people staging the transition by reducing work days over a period of time.  We know that people may really struggle going from five days a week, purpose-led, to nothing.

“It’s about having a connection with your people and understanding the challenges that occur at all stages of life. Employers need to be more conscious of what that looks like and consider that in the workplace.

“Age is just one component of diversity and if you are going to narrow in on one area, no matter what it is, you are missing out.

“You’re narrowing your scope from the market perspective, and you are reducing your capacity for problem-solving because everyone brings different life experiences.”

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a former journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.