Taking on the grey ceiling

If 50 is the new 40, why is it so hard to get hired?

Extracted and reproduced from Careers  14 Jun 2013        
By MARK PHILLIPS

    

Older workers often stay in jobs longer, are more productive and have lower levels of absenteeism

They cost more, are harder to train and less flexible. They’re also more likely to quit, resistant to change and injury-prone. These are just some of the views tarnishing mature age workers with the same brush and, depending on the individuals and situations in question, there’s probably an element of truth in all of them.

Paradoxically, it’s also true that older workers have been known to stay in jobs longer, be more productive, have lower levels of absenteeism and provide greater return on investment.

The Australian Government defines being “mature age” as any of the nation’s 3.8 million workers over 45, but the A$55 million earmarked for expenditure over the next four years on its Experience+ employment initiative is firmly aimed at getting over 50s back into work.

Speaking at a business breakfast in April to spruik the scheme, Federal Minister for Employment Participation Kate Ellis cited research she said clearly showed “mature age workers saved their employers money [around A$2000 a year] by being more reliable and loyal [than younger workers]”.

Flexible and 50

“When I turned 50, I knew I’d reached my use-by date,” says Lindsay Doig FCPA, a former and widely regarded IT expert in the public sector. Now in his 60s, Doig has reinvented himself and – among other things – is president of the Port Phillip branch of over-50s learning association, University of the Third Age (U3A) and chairman of the Victorian Third Age Network of CPA Australia.

“Younger people started to disregard anything I said and even those I worked closely with didn’t give the same credence or acknowledgement to my opinions,” Doig says. “I became less influential which, when you know you have particular skills and insights, is very disappointing.”

Doig believes one of the keys to dealing with ageism and the downward spiral in confidence it causes, is to adopt a more flexible approach to employment.

“Older workers can become fixed in their ways and unwilling to do things differently, and that’s their loss,” he says. “You can’t always expect to continue in the same role, but there are opportunities out there if you’re prepared to think creatively.”

Doig has retired four times from the workforce, only to return in sectors and roles very different to the ones he was in before but, nonetheless, still required the “soft” organisational skills he has developed over a lifetime.

Even so, according to Ellis, once out of work, mature age workers take on average 47 weeks to find new employment, more than double the time of younger workers, which is 21 weeks.

An Australian Government report, Realising the Economic Potential of Senior Australians, claims there are two million Australians older than 55 interested in working who have no job. The Commonwealth Treasury estimates the untapped resource is costing the economy A$10.8 billion a year.

Although men in their 50s in middle management are the most likely to report discrimination in the workplace, the skills and talents of older women are also nowhere near fully harnessed. A new Diversity Council Australia (DCA) study, Older Women Matter, produced in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and management consultancy Sageco, shows Australia lags far behind comparable countries when it comes to the participation of women aged 55 to 64 in the labour market.

One of the upshots, says DCA CEO Nareen Young, is that benefits that might otherwise accrue to Australian organisations – “such as improved performance, innovation and market share as well as lowered legal and reputational risks” – go begging.

“This is a terrible waste of human capital that undermines the national imperative of growing the economy and results in significant loss to business,” adds Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan. “It also impacts the financial, emotional and physical wellbeing of the many women who were consigned to unwanted early retirement.”

Debbie [surname withheld] was an account director with a large public relations firm until, at age 52, she was let go as a result of the economic downturn. A divorcee with a strong track record in her field, she was financially independent and confident of soon finding an even better position elsewhere.

“PR has a reputation for being a ‘young’ person’s profession, but I had more than 20 years in the industry, lots of contacts and no personal commitments, so I wanted to find something I really wanted,” she recalls.

“The first thing I noticed was how many of the advertised jobs used code for ‘young’ – words like ‘dynamic’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘innovative’. They were jobs I knew I could do, but more often than not I was told I was either over or under qualified – usually by someone half my age. The worst were the recruitment agencies – you could tell straight away they’d probably been told not to put forward any candidates over 40.”

Entrenched negative stereotypes mean employers continue to underutilise many of the skills older people have.  

Frustrated, increasingly disillusioned but still determined to pursue a productive career, Debbie eventually gave up on PR, purchased a pet grooming franchise and today is profitably “in business for myself, but not by myself”. Unfortunately, for many lacking her financial means – especially those without sufficient superannuation – the future can seem bleak, with low self-esteem, social isolation and a permanent exit from the workforce not uncommon.

“I’m aware of people who have been destroyed by this,” Doig says. “I know someone who’s been in accounting for many, many years, and he can’t get a job. He has great skills but can’t get them recognised. Now he’s bitter, absolutely shattered and just not positive in the way he needs to be.”

At her breakfast address, Ellis announced: “A well-implemented workforce strategy that engages mature age workers will improve morale, teamwork and productivity. We’ve known this but why has acceptance been slow and attempts to take action even slower?”

The current Sex Discrimination Commissioner and former Age Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has noted that unlike other forms of discrimination, ageism is not yet “at the point of being stigmatised”.

So, even as equal opportunity in the workplace becomes a new mantra, entrenched negative stereotypes about age mean employers continue to underutilise many of the abilities and skills older people have to offer.

The Rudd government’s decision in 2009 to increase the retirement age to 67 – even though it doesn’t come into full effect until 2023 – means there’s going to be a lot more mature age people wanting and needing to stay longer in the workforce. Whether employers will make the most of the opportunity remains to be seen.

6 tips for tackling the grey ceiling

It’s not all hopeless. People over the age of 45 do get hired; many more interview for jobs. Here are some things to keep in mind to increase your chances of breaking through the grey ceiling:

1.    Emphasise your willingness to be flexible

2.    Highlight the diversity aspects of past roles

3.    Focus on your most recent career successes

4.    Refresh your networks by reaching out to past contacts and updating your profile on LinkedIn

5.    Talk up how your experience can add bottom-line value

6.    If one door closes, think creatively about how your skills might otherwise be used. Explore alternative employment options such as consulting or franchising, or re-skill for a total sea change.

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