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The old and the restless.

Few employers will just come out and say ‘you’re too old’ for a position, but there are plenty of other sneaky tactics they can adopt to put off older workers or pass them over for promotion.

A survey on attitudes toward older workers was conducted by the Department of Health and Ageing and revealed that 44 per cent of younger workers felt that hiring them would increase costs while 66 per cent said it was unlikely they would increase know-how and experience.

Not only was there little value given to their skills, but 35 per cent felt they would actually have a negative impact on the organisation’s image and 28 per cent said they would stifle creativity.

These sorts of beliefs are impacting heavily on the employment prospects of older workers. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said that while 45-64 year olds might have lower unemployment rates than those in the labour force generally, unemployed people in this age group often have more difficulty in obtaining work than younger job seekers, which can put them out of work for some time if they lose their jobs.

To address some parts of the problem, the Federal Government this year announced a whole raft of new measures to help older workers get back into the workforce, but ageism is still rife.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report into age discrimination found it remained rampant with many people over 45 years of age claiming they have been pre-judged and rejected for reasons such as not “fitting into the environment” or for being “too qualified”. It also found that your chances of landing a new job after a certain age were a lot slimmer, and if even if you did find work, it wouldn’t necessarily be full time.

Former age discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Brodericktold ABC radio that if you’re 45 or older, and find yourself unemployed, your chances of finding work are remote.

She said common misconceptions about older workers were that they are “too opinionated, no good with technology, low in energy”.

One of the main tactics for keeping older people out of the market has been revealed by a National Seniors Australia report that found companies discriminating against older job seekers by icing them out and using terms like ‘fast-paced’, ‘high-flyer’ and ‘can-do’, or what the report describes as ‘age-specific descriptors’ to screen out older job seekers.

National Seniors chief executive Michael O’Neill said companies were forever finding ways to get around the 2004 Age Discrimination Act.

“With the age discrimination laws in place, employers are now much more sophisticated in how they exclude older workers. For example, they may use recruitment agencies to screen applicants, employ code terms such as ‘overqualified’ or frame advertisements denoting youth. And then, surprisingly in this day and age, there are still those employers who just come out and say ‘you’re too old’.”

But there are some very good reasons why this has to change. According to the 2010 Intergenerational report, the proportion of working age people is projected to fall and is already producing skills shortages. This will affect national productivity and hurt business.

Many older workers are postponing retirement because of the poor economy, and because they feel they still have plenty to contribute. So surely older workers could fill this skills gap if employers were able to look beyond their prejudices?

Age discrimination commissioner Susan Ryan told Smart Company she believed businesses would change the way they looked at older workers. And she believes businesses can gain a lot by taking on older workers with their experience, particularly in a part-time capacity.

“There’s a big opportunity for small businesses who can see what’s out there and what experience they can bring,” Ryan says.”Often small business are looking for employees with a lot of experience. And if you only have a small number of employees, you need them to be able to do a wide range of things.”

Still, it sounds like she has her work cut out to persuade potential employers.

So what do you do if you’ve lost your job and you’re in your 40s and 50s? From personal experience, a lot of it comes down to attitude.

At the age of 50, I had to reinvent myself as a freelance journalist. It was challenging and occasionally scary but it’s like being a soldier at the front. Some crack under pressure, while others just focus and get on with it. Three years on, and I haven’t looked back.

Here is some advice from the experts:

– Keep your skills up to date.

– Present good resumes that highlight skills and achievements to attract the eye of time poor recruiters.

– Network and get in touch with mature age employment groups that can put them in touch with employers (examples might include outfits like Adage or Plus 40).

– Use LinkedIn to build up contacts rather than relying on traditional ways of looking for jobs ads in papers.

– Look for companies with age-friendly hiring policies, or target smaller business who need workers with a wide range of skills.

– Be as flexible as possible. That might mean, for example, starting at a lower wage or position and working your way up.

– Contact the Australian Human Rights Commission if you feel you have been discriminated against because there is actually a Commonwealth law that can offer some protection. If an employer tells you they’re looking for someone younger, tell them it’s in breach of the Act.

– Do not look at your age as a barrier. “If I feel I am being discriminated against because of my age, I will become more defensive and protective,” says Kathy Kostyrko, public sector director at recruitment agency Hays.

Have you ever experienced age discrimination, and if so, how did you handle it?

Leon Gettler

(This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.)

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