Employers can’t legally turn down job applicants because of their age. Yet age discrimination is common, especially when it comes to filling executive positions.
Some years ago I interviewed Trevor Moir for the Sydney Morning Herald. Moir, an accountant by profession, runs the Executives’ Co-ordination Group, a Sydney-based organisation for older, unemployed executives. He says employers turn down or don’t even consider many of his members because they are past an unwritten sell-by date.
When I spoke to Moir in the early 2000s, his group had 51 active members, mainly from Sydney’s North Shore. The membership included accountants, bankers, lawyers, engineers, marketing and advertising executives, airline industry workers and IT specialists. In addition, Moir received a constant stream of mail and phone calls from similarly unemployed executives around the country.
He said, “Some of our guys have written hundreds of application letters but have never even received a reply.” Moir had similar experiences himself before he formed the group.
According to Moir, recruitment firms are the biggest barrier to employment for older executives. “They’re the first line in the battle. If you get past them and speak to an employer, you have a fighting chance.”
At times the experiences of Moir’s member were positively surreal. For example, a recruitment consultant told one member he should dye his greying hair before attending an interview.
How old is too old?
Which prompts a question; just how old is too old? According to Moir the age where discrimination kicks in has dropped in recent years. He has group members in their early 40s.
It can get worse. Employment consultant Denis Baker told me he saw an extreme case where an employer to a 30-year-old he was too old for a job. On the other hand, he says he saw an American study arguing the best workers are between 55 and 65.
The researchers found this group is highly focused – mainly because they know they have one last chance to make money before retirement. They tend to work hard, have better skills and take less sick leave.
Age discrimination unsustainable
The good news for older executives is that demographics mean age discrimination is unsustainable in the long-term. In most of the world’s rich countries they workforce is aging so fast that soon employers won’t have the luxury of turning down skilled, experienced workers.
According to research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1998 only three percent of the workforce was between 60 and 65, by 2016 that age group will account for 15 percent of workers. By then more than half of all workers will be over 45.
Although discrimination against older workers is commonplace around the world, it seems more entrenched here. Only 49 percent of Australians aged between 55 and 64 are in the workforce, this compares with 59 percent of American workers in the same age group, 60 percent of New Zealanders and up to 65 percent in some parts of Scandinavia.