The Glass Trapdoor

Breaking through the glass ceiling is relatively easy. I did it almost 20 years ago. But no one told me about the glass trapdoor – that was the shock nothing in my stellar career had prepared me for. At 50 my corporate stiletto slipped on the glass ceiling and I went head first through the glass trapdoor with a silent thud. My greatest strategic career failure was I did not understand 50 was considered old. In case I was in any doubt, an executive recruiter looked me straight in the eye and told me I was too old. At least he was honest, I guess.

This is not a unique story. The tentacles of age discrimination reach into every facet of Australian society and nothing we are currently doing is working. The government bribing companies by paying $10,000 per older employee has been a dismal failure. Less than 3000 people are involved in a scheme that hoped to attract 32,000.

The Governments intergenerational report makes it clear that older workers must work longer. It is a financial imperative, as it will boost productivity. An extra 3{01332a80e2e652688e18927fa9a6162580960d47bc08263a3993439d666dcd52} participation rate in workers over 55 is estimated to account for a $33 billion boost to Australia’s gross domestic product.

As an added incentive for older people to continue to work the pension age will go up. From July 2025, the qualifying age to receive the Age Pension will continue to increase from 67 years, by six months every two years, until it reaches 70 years in July 2035.

The fatal flaw in this grand strategy is that employers are terminating older workers from their workforce at alarming rates. Once people have been terminated it is more difficult to re-enter the workforce. If they do they are often underemployed and are unable to maintain their previous standard of living.

To add to the problem the definition of an older worker is getting younger. It appears to be going down in 5 yearly increments.  Forget 65 think 50 or even 45.  For redundancy purposes if an employee is 45, they are defined as an older worker. They receive small extra payments for the privilege. They then enter the world of unemployment where it takes an average of 72 weeks for them to re-enter the workforce in some capacity.

Workers are becoming so fearful of being classified as old they are spending big dollars on keeping themselves looking younger. Research shows that one of the primary reasons women go under the surgeon’s knife is to ensure employability in the workforce. Now as an executive coach and facilitator, working in corporate Australia, I am aware of the level of fear.  That fear is not only confined to women it just starts earlier.

The Government has acknowledged employment discrimination may derail their plans. An inquiry has been established to identify what is required to keep older people in the workforce and is being released in July 2016. Let’s hope that inquiry packs a punch because it will have to be taken seriously if government wants to deliver on any number of economic outcomes.

Susan Ryan the Age Discrimination Commissioner and I were recently discussing this topic on Radio National’s Life Matters program.  We agree it is a social and economic issue affecting a growing cohort of men and women. It caught government by surprise, very much on the back foot.

It is important to dispel the myths. Australians do want to work over 50. The issue is they often cannot get a job after their employment has been terminated. The jobs that are being offered are often casual or jobs that no one else wants. Financial hardship is becoming an inevitable reality for this group of older Australians and is affecting their health. Worryingly men, who have lost employment between 45 and 65, are one of the largest growing demographic for mental health issues.

Staggeringly in Australia today there are more people over 50 on work for the dole schemes than unemployed people below 22. Even more shocking there are now 210,000 Australians over the age of 50 who are living off unemployment benefits. Serious intervention is required if for no other reason other than self-interest. No amount of bribery, no amount of Botox, no amount of surgery is going to mask this problem any time soon.

It’s easy to get the data, change pensions policies and set up an inquiry, it is much more difficult to change a culture. This is challenging in Australia, as ageism in the workforce is as rampant as it is silent. Silence can no longer be accepted and people as young as 45 cannot just be disregarded with some guilt money to go away.

It’s time for Governments, employers and Australians to act. Unlike the suffragettes, or powerful images of Ruby Bridges attending an integrated school, there has not been a similar movement for the greying masses for anything to change. Given the boost to profits, productivity and a reduction on the burden of the aged pension, it is beyond me why corporate Australia, state and federal governments and the productivity commission are not rallying in the streets to make this happen.

This article was published in the age in Feb 2016