Fighting discrimination against mature-age workers

Battle of the Ages

By Anthony Wong

The information and communication technology industry prides itself on pushing the boundaries on innovation – both in thought and in application. We like to do things differently, to challenge the status quo and to set new standards.

Right now, we have an opportunity to do just that in the way we recruit and develop our people.

A new Australian Computer Society report has highlighted the enormous cost of widespread age discrimination in the ICT workforce and calls for measures to combat it.

We need to change negative attitudes towards older workers and correct misconceptions about the quality and value of their contributions.

While ageism is difficult to prove, its effect is undeniable, with Australia’s mature-age workforce participation rates below those of other nations such as Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the US.

ACS employment surveys over the past several years have consistently highlighted significant and growing under-utilisation of ICT workers aged 45 years and over.

In an industry where experience and knowledge can make an enormous difference to efficiency, and where life-long learning is essential, to discount an applicant because of age is to be ignorant and short-sighted.

Despite widespread skills shortages, anecdotal evidence suggests the situation has deteriorated in the past several years.

Australia’s ageing population has prompted the federal government to raise the retirement age and introduce policies to encourage people to delay retirement. In this scenario, it makes no sense to lock experienced workers out of the market.

Older workers bring a wealth of skills, experience and pragmatism to ICT projects because they have learned over time what does and doesn’t work. Their corporate knowledge and, in many cases, their leadership skills, make them invaluable additions to projects and they often have a higher commitment to professional standards than younger workers.

In direct contradiction to beliefs that older workers are “past their use-by date”, numerous research projects have demonstrated that mature age workers:
•    are more loyal (young workers are five times more likely to change jobs than their older colleagues);
•    have lower absenteeism (workers aged 50-55 are only half as likely to take a day off for their own illness or as a carer, compared with workers aged 25-34);
•    demonstrate better job safety (mature age workers are less likely to experience work-related injuries than younger colleagues);
•    show more commitment and reliability than younger workers;
•    have improved ability to deal with change;
•    show better people-oriented and development skills;
•    have greater knowledge and understanding of what works;
•    are more highly developed in leadership skills;
•    show greater motivation; are more likely to complete tasks on time;
•    have strong industry knowledge; and
•    deliver a greater return on training investments.

And there’s a tangible pay-off for employers. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the above factors combined mean mature workers deliver an average net benefit of $1956 each year above their younger colleagues.

Ageism is not an area in which the ICT industry should be leading the trend, unless that trend is to reverse the status quo and start changing attitudes and behaviours to become more inclusive and accepting of age diversity.

The challenges of our demographics cannot be denied. Australia has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world. Within just four years, a full third of our work force will be mature aged.

Since ageism appears to be so rampant across ICT, the ACS is calling on the government to treat our industry as a test case and work with key stakeholders to introduce measures designed to combat the problem. Among its key recommendations are:
•    more research to understand the extent of the problem;
•    a national education campaign to change attitudes;
•    an industry taskforce to develop practical solutions;
•    a self-regulatory code of practice for the ICT sector;
•    funding for a national strategy to address ageism; and
•    incentives for employers to hire mature-age workers.
We want greater transparency in recruitment practices to ensure that age discrimination is not used to eliminate job candidates.

The government introduced age discrimination legislation in 2004 making it unlawful to discriminate because of age, but stricter enforcement is needed. A survey of more than 180 recruitment consultants published in 2004 found that only two were willing to put forward to employers people aged over 37.

While current recruitment practices and employer attitudes may be different, we look forward to working with the government and other stakeholders to reverse this trend and create an industry, and a nation, where all workers have the opportunity to contribute and be respected for their contribution.

Anthony Wong is president of the Australian Computer Society and chief executive of AGW Consulting, a multidisciplinary ICT, intellectual property legal and consulting practice.

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