Fear of litigation makes it difficult for employers to openly turn down job applicants because of their age. Yet there is a strong suspicion the practice is widespread, 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 many of his organisation’s members have been turned down for jobs, or more often, not even considered for work, simply because they are past some 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 to these people, Moir received a constant stream of mail and phone calls from similarly unemployed executives around the country.

Not even a reply

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 actually 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, during a meeting with a recruitment consultant, one member was told he should dye his greying hair before attending an interview.

Which prompts a question; just how old is too old? According to Moir the age where serious discrimination kicks in has dropped considerably in recent years. He certainly had group members who are in their early 40s.

Too old at 30?

It can get worse. Employment consultant Denis Baker told me he personally saw an extreme case where someone who was 30 was told he was too old for a job. On the other hand, he says he has seen an American study which argued that the most viable workers were people 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.

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 ageing so fast that soon employers won’t have the luxury of turning down skilled, experienced workers. And there’s evidence older workers make better employees.

According to research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1998 only three percent of the workforce was aged between 60 and 65, by 2016 that age group will account for 15 percent of the workforce. By then more than half the entire workforce will be over 45.

Although discrimination against older workers is commonplace around the world, it does appear to be 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. What’s more, Australia is one of the few advanced economies where there is no formal age discrimination legislation, though this is set to change in the near future.

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