Why Australian businesses must embrace age diversity

Businesses and recruiters are reporting a significant candidate short market in a wide range of roles at levels not experienced for many years.   Many workplace analysts and recruiters predict 2021 will be one of the toughest years for talent acquisition for over 10 years.  

The latest SEEK Employment Report  announced that March this year recorded the highest number of jobs posted since 1998 and the lowest number of applications since 2012.

Multiple factors have contributed to the situation.  Many resulted from the impact of the pandemic, some were unexpected and others due to market and business growth. Numerous solutions have been thrown at the problem including transforming hiring processes, employer branding and candidate experiences.  But a missing link remains which is the link of age diversity..    

I guarantee a large number of roles have not been filled due to ageism and stereotyping. And are unlikely to be closed anytime soon without knocking age bias on the head.   Smaller businesses and start-ups will also face additional challenges in competing with larger employer brands.   

There is a rich supply of skilled and aligned candidates over 45 who are being ignored. This disregard would be laughable if it wasn’t so heinous.   It’s illogical  to lump every member of a generation into the same stereotyped box as there is no empirical evidence of the correlation between age and value.  Doing so is half baked and commercially irresponsible. 

Dr Catherine Rickwood a leading age diversity consultant says : “ageism in the workplace is incredibly pervasive with a blinkered approach to recruitment and training. Excluding older people from the candidate pool negatively impacts team thinking, creativity and the bottom line”.

State of play

There is an abundance of research on the economic and social impact of ageism along with the benefits of age diverse workplaces including the recent Ageism is a global challenge: UN  report from the World Health Organisation. The report is damning of how the response to control COVID19 has unveiled widespread ageism of both older and younger people who are negatively stereotyped in public discourse and social media.   

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO said:

“As countries seek to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we cannot let age based stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination limit opportunities to secure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere”.

The 2021 AHRI/Human Rights Employing Older Australians report identifies 25% of businesses don’t have age diversity practices with 50% admitting a reluctance to recruit older workers.  The definition of an older worker has also dropped from 61-65 in 2018 to 51-54 in 2021.

AHRI also found that “over two thirds of organisations seldom or never undertake bias training and of those which do, only 50% include age bias”

I personally observe a perplexing absence of ageism in many ‘diversity & inclusion’ conversations and initiatives. Gender takes centre stage, followed by race and disability excluding age.

It’s illegal to discriminate against age and there are many powerful voices and outstanding organisations advocating against ageism.  

But the truth is, not much has really changed and substantial movement is now critical.    

Hire who I am

 Media commentator and EveryAGE Counts ambassador Jane Caro says:

“When you discriminate against age you are shooting your future self in the foot.  Every older person wants to be taken seriously and treated as an individual”.

To be taken seriously and evaluated as an individual on merit is core to nullifying hiring biases.   I spoke with two leaders recruiting in this context and who consider age irrelevant:

Stuart Dalrymple, GM of healthtech start-up Kāhu  has an expanding tight knit global team of all ages up to late 50s.  His selection criteria focusses on having a curious mind (in and out of the workplace), an ability to deal with ambiguity and high ethical standards of refusing to cut corners or compromise.  

The APAC VP of SaaS organisation Seismic, Heather Cook has hired 100s of high performing sales and customer service staff in their 20s to 60s over her career.  Her criteria is whether the person is a doer and gets off their butt, has a nose for client research and solutions and is hardwired to constantly learn and share knowledge.

The takeaway from the above is to hire with solid EQ and IQ alongside a commitment to the needs of the role unfettered from bias.

The recruiter lens

As an ex recruitment agency owner, I know some recruiters are willing to push back on ageist and biased job briefs.  I was one who certainly did but many won’t due to fear of losing a placement or due to their own ageist beliefs.

Disturbingly I found some clients over 45 would discriminate against their own generation.  But that’s for another article.

I approached many recruiters to gain their feedback with few willing to contribute. One encouraging story came from digital recruiter Hani Jaber.  At 32 he abhors all forms of bias and fearlessly encourages clients to look inwards to hire without age prejudice placing candidates below and well over 50.   

Some companies are definitely hiring differently in 2021.   A director of a busy  marketing recruitment agency told me their clients (through necessity) are willing to review and hire anyone with the right skills irrelevant of age.  Placing many candidates over 50 this year the director admits that before COVID19 securing an interview for anyone over 45 was difficult.

Dr Catherine Rickwood also urges recruiters to question their attitudes and beliefs about what candidates over 45 can and cannot do. Recruiters and employers must be curious in challenging the notion that people over a certain age are a cultural mismatch because of an existing younger workforce”. 

Take ownership

We must all take ownership of ageism, to self-reflect and mitigate our own biases with courage and urgency.  In a world grappling with relentless challenges and anguish, there is no more important time to stamp out ageism and for businesses to embrace age diversity to solve staff shortfalls.  


This article was also exclusively published in Smart Company 

Now read:    Strategies to bowl over career ageism at 45+

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