ACT News

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says workplaces need an overhaul to stop age prejudice

Lifting the pension age to 70 will make sense in the future, but first there must be a massive overhaul to keep people in the workplace, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says.

Ms Ryan said the federal government's plan to raise the pension age to 70 by 2035 came as a "bombshell" to many older workers but was a signal things had to change now.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan.
Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan.  Photo: Andrew Meares

"We've got people in their 50s who are considered too old to be employed," she said.

"Let's address that problem now and then by the time we get to 2035... if you fixed up the workplace… you'd find most people would want to keep working until they're 70.

Ms Ryan will deliver the keynote speech on Tuesday at the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia annual symposium tackling the "extremely timely" topic of population ageing and Australia's future.

"The whole issue of the impact on the economy of the ageing population needs more attention," she said.


"I'm trying to focus decision makers on this huge looming issue of a rapidly growing older age group, but not an age group that needs to be seen just as a burden… mostly people retain health and energy until they're 70 and… a willingness to work in the appropriate way."

Ms Ryan said in coming weeks the commission would begin surveying employees and employers across the country to assess for the first time the prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace.

"We are hoping to get from that... a national picture of how much age discrimination there is, what the factors are that cause people to leave the workplace too early," she said. 

"I'm keen to see a better picture of how far having a higher education assists you in your working life… we want to see if it assists people stay in the workplace for as long as they want to."

She said governments need to think ahead and plan for industry changes that left older workers in their 50s and 60s highly-skilled but unemployed and unable to find a new job because of age prejudice.

Her solution would see older workers undergo a "career check-up" giving them advice about finding a new skills base if needed.

Although blue-collar and trades workers are often the hardest hit, Ms Ryan said they weren't the only ones affected by the widespread problem.

"You certainly see it in white-collar jobs, particularly in the middle level… in public and private sectors," she said.

"Everyone should have the opportunity to recheck where they are going at about 50.

"If the sector they're in is losing jobs they can see… where the other jobs are, what training they need and how they can get it."

She said the "coordinated national approach" would need input from state governments, business leaders and training institutions, but should be led by the federal government because of the massive impact on the national economy.

Rather than "massive new funding" it would require "better investment in capable middle-aged workers".

Modelling by Deloitte Access Economics for the Human Rights Commission shows that a 3 per cent increase in workforce participation for workers over 55 – beyond an already expected 2.7 per cent by 2024-25 – would contribute an extra $33 billion to Australia's GDP. 

Ms Ryan said it showed the economy could be massively strengthened without huge changes.

"The people are there, they want to work, they're able to work… it's a matter of having an approach and a system that brings the skilled highly-motivated mid-life workers into a position where they are able to take up the jobs that are available," she said.