Does age advocacy have a problem with ageism?

Research indicates that the relationship between age and job performance is complex.

By Professor Philip Taylor

Much public policy and debate is focused on prolonging working lives in response to Australia’s ageing population.

While older people’s employment has not solely been considered through an age discrimination lens this issue has garnered much attention. Reports have concluded that age discrimination is commonplace and the phenomenon is primarily associated with older ages.

Advocacy has emerged in the cause of overcoming age discrimination but much of this is ageist. To illustrate, at an event organised by Council on the Ageing in 2019 in a speech titled The Economic Impacts of Ageism Emma Dawson of social policy think tank Per Capita refers to ageism as being an ‘entrenched and widespread prejudice’, stating that the ‘root of the problem can be found in the dominant narrative in our political and social discourse that frames ageing as almost entirely a negative experience’.

She explains that ‘many older people want to keep working, but are shut out of the labour market due to ageism in the workforce’. Yet, she claims elsewhere in her speech that ‘repeated studies, both here and overseas, have shown that older workers are more productive – they are less likely to spend time at work on Facebook – more reliable, less likely to leave their jobs every two-to-five years, and bring experience and complex problem-solving abilities to the workforce that have taken years to develop’.

In evaluating these comments, it is helpful to consider critiques of research and advocacy concerning issues of age and work.

Firstly, the logic of age equality would seem to preclude an especial focus on older people and standard definitions consider that ageism can be experienced at any age. From such a standpoint the age advocacy outlined above might be considered overtly ageist.

Furthermore, disregarding experiences of age discrimination or arguing that it is widespread may be considered ageist if contradicted by the evidence. And research indicates that the health of those experiencing ageism or age discrimination may be affected.

Are older workers more productive?

Puzzlingly, age stereotypes are often presented as facts about older workers’ capabilities. So-called business cases for older workers promoted by advocates regularly make reference to their supposed greater loyalty, reliability and experience compared to younger people. But commentators have warned against lessening the impact of diversity messaging by legitimising the use of such stereotypes.

Also, such arguments are not grounded in solid evidence. Research indicates that the relationship between age and job performance is complex. Further, the very arguments put forward for employing older workers – that they are more committed, loyal and experienced – may risk confirming societal perceptions that they are unsuited to modern workplaces. Consequently, even disregarding the ageist overtones of present age advocacy, articulating a business case for older workers is problematic.

Are older workers vulnerable?

Is age discrimination widespread and ongoing? It appears not. Advocates often quote from a survey commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission that approximately a quarter of older people report experiences of age discrimination, instead of stating, less emotively, that according to this survey then, the vast majority do not. Also, other national surveys have found that the incidence of perceived age discrimination against older workers is lower than this and declining.

What of the notion that age discrimination is a phenomenon only or mostly experienced by older people? Again, evidence suggests otherwise. Research indicates that while older job seekers are more likely to experience age discrimination, it is younger people who are more likely to experience it in the course of their employment.

Why does this matter?

A fake age advocacy has emerged that makes unsupported claims in the face of contradictory evidence, uses empirical research selectively and lacks sound conceptual underpinnings. Its intentions appear ideological rather than to accurately inform public debate and as such might be considered to be akin to a form of propaganda.

In such advocacy, ageism and age discrimination are narrowly conceived, misunderstood and inaccurately described, operating to the detriment of both younger and older people.

What can be done about it?

Five interrelated principles should form the basis of an evidence-based advocacy on ageing and work.

The first concerns the role of advocacy in informing public understanding. To illustrate, inflated claims regarding the prevalence of age discrimination may have seeped into the public consciousness, perversely to the detriment of efforts to prolong working lives. For instance, according to research, perceptions of ageism in society are a commonly reported reason for retirement.

Second, instead of drawing on stereotypes, a more effective advocacy may be constructed on a foundation of age neutrality that questions the relevance of age for employment decisions, overcoming the problem of advocacy being open to accusations of ageism, and consequently of muddling the public discourse.

The present advocacy standpoint also risks older people being mistrusted, considered irrelevant and deemed only suitable for roles requiring traditional skills.

Third, whatever a person’s age, it is how the multiple aspects of their identity intersect that impacts on how they experience inclusion and exclusion at work. Age discrimination, thus, may be experienced differently by workers of the same age depending on the context. To meaningfully address age-related issues a range of other factors must also be considered.

Fourth, older and younger workers are more accurately viewed as complements than competitors but there is a popular view that lowering unemployment among younger people will be achieved by older people getting out of the way, even among the latter’s advocates.

Thus, according to National Seniors Australia recently, early retirement ‘would potentially free up some of the jobs that could go to younger workers or workers in their 50s struggling to find employment. Maybe even reduce the official unemployment figures at a time when it’s heading skyward.’ Yet, according to economists, there is no finite amount of work that must be fairly distributed.

Fifth is the discarding of the traditional three-phase notion of the lifecycle – education, work and retirement – instead encouraging a more diversified, flexible and dynamic life pattern. Such an approach would move beyond policies centred on certain phases of life or certain age groups by introducing a global approach, offering individuals rights and resources that make them the authors of their own life courses.

In acknowledging that ageism is potentially experienced by people at all ages, a more effective advocacy might start a generational dialogue concerning its causes and solutions. This is particularly important during a period of unprecedented economic and social upheaval, when rates of youth unemployment rose dramatically in 2020 and there is considerable current public debate concerning the societal value of older people.

At this time, age advocates must get their messages straight.

Philip Taylor is Professor of Human Resource Management at Federation University Australia. He is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and was the 2018 Australian Association of Gerontology Glenda Powell Travelling Fellow on the topic of work and ageing.

This article was first published in the September-October, 2021 issue of Australian Ageing Agenda magazine and draws from an earlier article by Philip Taylor and Catherine Earl: Taylor, P. & Earl, C. (2021). The enduring myth of endemic age discrimination in the Australian labour market. Ageing and Society, 1–10, doi:10.1017/S0144686X21001112.

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