Invision Blog Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination in the Workplace

Age Discrimination in the Workplace – Too old to work?

Ageism is essentially bias against a person or group on the grounds of age. An ageing society means that greater numbers of older people may want, or need to remain in the workforce for longer periods. However, older people often encounter barriers to full participation in society. This is most marked with respect to employment.

In the workplace, we need age diversity to profit from the invaluable contributions that each age group can offer. Ageism is present in every stage of employment, from recruitment and selection to terminations.

It seems that ageism permeates our culture and society. It is exacerbated by negative connotations in our language, literature and media. Myths and stereotypes about older people in the workplace continue to present a barrier for older workers in obtaining and retaining employment. Some stereotypes tend to present older workers as being; “unadaptable to change”, “set in their ways”, “technologically illiterate”, “dependent” or “irrelevant.”

Despite an increase in mature age workers in the workforce over the last two decades, the biggest hurdle that these individuals face continues to be discrimination, with some essentially coerced out of the workforce. If older workers are perceived as less productive and are forced to retire, the idea that older workers are not productive, is reinforced and further perpetuates discrimination.

What are the Statistics?

According to a 2004 survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Mature Age Person Statistical Profile’, out of 1500 people surveyed aged between 45 and 74, 67% had concerns about the prospect of re-entering the workforce or advancing in their current jobs. In 2004, close to one-third (32%) of people participating in the labour force were aged 45-64 years, up from 24% in 1983. This increase not only reflects larger numbers of people entering this age group as the baby boomers age, but also changes in labour force participation over the period.

Another 2004 survey conducted by Hudson Global Resources and Human Capital Solutions, also found that less than one-third of organisations proactively seek to attract and retain mature age workers.

What are the Age Discrimination Laws?

All States and Territories have legislation in place, which, at least in theory, protects people from discrimination on the grounds of age. In 2004, the Federal Government passed the Age Discrimination Act. The act seeks to protect the interests of both younger and older Australians, and covers areas such as; employment, education, provision of goods and services and facilities and accommodation etc.

In Western Australia, the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) covers grounds of unlawful discrimination such as; sex, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, race, religious or political conviction, age, racial harassment, impairment, family responsibility or family status, gender history.

Case Law

Even though potential employers cannot advertise age preferences for jobs, some advertisements still provide numerous clear messages about the preferred age range, through the use of age specific descriptors, such as ‘a young, exciting environment’ etc. While such language or criteria can be used legitimately for employers to find a suitable employee, they can also hide ageist biases.

For example, in Hopper & Others v Virgin Blue Airlines Pty Ltd [2005] QADT 28, the Queensland Tribunal found that Virgin Blue had discriminated against eight female complainants, who had applied for the positions of “cabin crew member”, because they were over the age of 35. While the criteria of ‘Virgin Flair’ did not contravene anti-discrimination laws per se, the assessors’ application of their preference for younger people, was more in line with the concept of ‘Virgin Flair’, described as – ‘a desire to create a memorable, positive experience for customers: the
ability to have fun, making it fun for the customer.’

In Gilshenan v P.D. Mulligan (Newcastle) Pty Ltd (1995) EOC 92-781 a 64-year-old butcher was transferred from the butcher’s shop to a sausage-making factory. He alleged that the transfer was intended to induce him to retire; the respondent however claimed that he was too slow at his job and was not fulfilling the inherent requirements of the position. The Tribunal found that he was competent at his previous position, and ruled that the respondent had discriminated against him on the basis of his age.

Similarly in Goodworth v Marsdens Motors Pty Ltd (No 1) [1996] NSWEOT; EOC 92-837. Ms Goodworth was forced to retire after six years of employment with the respondent. The company claimed she was inefficient, incompetent and the office was overstaffed. The Managing-Director however purportedly told a trainee that Ms Goodworth was ‘older and her health is not good. We want someone younger. You can do the same job that she did.’

Skinner v Lightning Bolt Pty Ltd [2001] EOC 93-167. The complainants, aged 58 and 57 were laid off after three months of employment. The respondents claimed there was not enough work for them due to a down turn in trade, as a large client had gone into liquidation. When one of the complainants returned to the respondent to get a reference, he noticed two younger men aged 36 and 21 doing the jobs of the two complainants. The Tribunal found that there was no shortage of work for the complainants, and that they were in fact discriminated against because of their age.

Solutions to Ageism in the Workplace

While a well implemented ageing strategy will improve morale, teamwork, cooperation and productivity across all levels of the organisation, workplace policies must be framed carefully. Ageism is just one of the many challenges organisations must address in order to embrace one of the only remaining segments of the workforce in which participation can be increased.

The following HR practices are important;

1. Introduce measures to combat ageism such as education and awareness programs;
2. Restructure work practices to accommodate emerging population trends;
3. Train staff to enhance the organisational skill set; and
4. Train managers in age management strategies and age discrimination.

Just as organisations put in place strategies and policies to address issues such as workplace bullying or harassment, employers must consider the same in order to prevent age discrimination from gaining a foothold in their workplace.

Tailoring policies and practices for age diversity is an important emphasis in the management of staff, and can be a demonstration of management and organisational flexibility. Organisations that discriminate on the basis of age, are limiting their chances of recruiting and retaining the best people.

As people live longer, engage in lifelong learning and pursue intellectual and skill growth throughout life, diversity in the workplace will become more common. In their quest to open doors to employment, development and opportunities for all working people, human resources specialists should not be constrained by age issues.

If you have any questions regarding issues of ageism, or other concerns in your workplace, please contact one of INVision’s Directors via our website at

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