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The Germans have a word for it. Don't they always? They call it Fremdschmen - that feeling of discomfort or awkwardness you experience when someone else publicly embarrasses themselves.
Perhaps you have felt Fremdschmen when watching viral social media videos of men staging elaborate marriage proposals at concerts or sports events, only to have their girlfriends say no. Certainly there's no avoiding it when Anthony Albanese proclaims how proud he is to be the Prime Minister of Austraya.
I suffered an intense Fremdschmen episode recently when US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell froze at a crowded press conference. It was the second time in as many months that the 81-year-old had stood motionless, unable to speak or react to questioning.
The footage of McConnell, who suffered a concussion after falling months earlier, makes for excruciating viewing. Whatever your political leanings, the sight of a frail old man with sagging jowls and glazed eyes staring blankly for 30 seconds, a wax figure of his former self, makes you feel for him. Yet you also feel embarrassed on his behalf.
McConnell is one of the most powerful figures in the Western world. He influences US Supreme Court appointments and decides the fate of presidential policies. Little wonder his frozen countenance has renewed debate around that ancient workplace question: How old is too old?
It's not just American politics and its jaded gerontocracy now struggling with this complex issue. Other Western countries with falling birthrates and stagnant population growth are also grappling with greying workforces.
Australia's share of workers over the age of 55 doubled in the 30 years between 1991 and 2021 and that trend is expected to continue well into the next two decades. But the reluctance of employers to hire older workers continues. According to a recent study by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian HR Institute, one in six businesses say they will not consider hiring anyone over 65.
The greatest culprit is the tech industry where the myth continues to flourish that older people are more intractable, less open to new thinking and lack the skill and intuition to work with new technology.
Studies show that workers in technological business who are over the age of 35 are considered "old". It's a curious bias for an industry driven by hard data and results because science shows there is little difference in the way various age groups solve problems and lead people. It's just that older people accumulate "wisdom" differently.
Psychologists often break down general intelligence into two areas - fluid and crystallised. Fluid intelligence is about thinking quickly and having the flexibility to solve problems when confronting unexpected or new situations. Unfortunately this ability fades as we enter our 30s.
Compensation, however, comes in the form of crystallised intelligence - the ability to solve problems by drawing on previously acquired skills and knowledge. Experience, in other words. Science suggests we continue building this form of intelligence - a valuable form of institutional memory - well into our 80s.
Of course, there are jobs where age and the ability to make snap decisions are critically important. Would you prefer your plane's pilot to be 50 (yes, please) or in their 70s (umm, no thanks)? Would you trust an ageing surgeon or lean toward an experienced specialist in their 40s with a steadier hand? The younger guy, naturally.
But most occupations do not involve sudden judgments about life and death. Good businesses have employees who provide that balance of fluid and crystallised intelligence and quickly recognise the benefits that older workers, with their "been there, done that" approach, can bring to the workplace.
One Australian insurance company recently began employing older workers in its call centre and discovered their life experience made them more empathetic and intuitive with customers.
None of which solves the problem of Mitch McConnell. His doctors are adamant he has not suffered a stroke or seizure. But he's not the only elderly US politician facing questions about their fitness to serve. Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, has appeared confused in public on several occasions, while concerns continue over President Joe Biden, who soon turns 81 and has experienced his share of disoriented and befuddled moments.
Most of us would agree that sound age limits should be mandatory for roles that affect people's lives, particularly those requiring a steady, not shaking, finger hovering over the nuclear button.
But science is pretty clear about most older workers. They're still up to it. And those companies prepared to trust them? They have nothing at all to feel embarrassed about.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Are you an older person who has returned to work? Have you encountered ageism in the workplace? Or do you believe many companies are right to avoid older workers because they can be set in their ways and are often intimidated by new technology? Email us: email@example.com
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
- In a move certain to inflame the debate over territory rights, the federal Coalition is seeking to overturn the ACT Labor-Greens government's controversial drug decriminalisation laws.
- The nation's labour market continues to defy the economic downturn, with the unemployment rate holding at at a near 50-year low. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the jobless rate held steady at 3.7 per cent for a second consecutive month in August, with full-time work up by 2800 positions and an extra 62,100 part-time jobs added.
- Australia must draw a line in the sand on alleged war crimes committed by elite troops in Afghanistan or risk "callously" increasing veteran suicide, a parliamentary inquiry says. A committee report found the country needed to rebalance the national conversation about this chapter in Australian military history.
THEY SAID IT: "Ageing is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been." - David Bowie
YOU SAID IT: Qantas faces an uphill battle restoring its reputation. That's why it's engaged a global consultancy to help. But more than expensive PR is needed.
Lee writes: "For Qantas to fix their reputation they need to do a few things: pay back their COVID money to the people of Australia. It would be a pittance compared to their profits; remove most if not all of Alan Joyce's golden parachute; pay those sacked workers urgently; get a new board and maybe a CEO that wasn't Joyce's right hand woman; stop cosying up to the pollies by offering them Chairman's Lounge access; and tell the government to let Qatar airlines in so we can enjoy cheaper flights. Not just to Adelaide or Perth as Albo suggested, but to the eastern seaboard."
"How has it taken so long for corporate crime to not be OK for governments?" asks Laurie. "Labour hire thefts - from the poorest and unprotected. The many dangers to the gig economy workers went by until it became a smell too big to ignore. The continual contracting of workers so the record profits went to those who constructed the many ways to deprive people. The dodgy builders - all OK - nothing to see here. How long will the lack of integrity and fairness go on? Why are governments so blind to what's going on? We can see it."
Ian writes: "On some criteria Alan Joyce clearly hasn't left the airline in very good nick. On the other hand, given what the airline has been through in the past few years, some might say he's done a good job, as it is at least still in business. There is certainly a question mark over his methods, so it comes back to what criteria are applied. Personally, if the Qantas board has any discretion over the amount, I don't think they should give him much of it, given the brand damage. Qantas' reputation can recover if it delivers a good reliable product, but it has to be competitive. Airlines like Qatar are government owned, so are backed by oil revenues. It is therefore not a level playing field, which I suspect was part of the government's decision regarding access. It comes down to whether we want Qantas to continue to exist, in spite of its recent performance. I'm pretty sure most Australians wouldn't want it to go out of business."
"How can one man be so critical to a corporation such that during his tenure, and departure, he is paid over $100 million?" asks Stuart. "Bring on the guillotine!"
Laurel writes: "Joyce screwed Qantas and all Australians. Let him pay with his golden handshake and bonuses."
"That's a no-brainer," writes Bob. "The entire Qantas board should be sacked with no bonuses paid, and Joyce's golden parachute should be cancelled. Qantas needs a whole new board, not a very expensive turd-polisher."
Geoff writes: "I have long since ceased travelling on Qantas ever since they crashed a 747 in Bangkok and left us stranded for hours. James Strong was at the helm at the time and treated us like lepers. After he had gone and left that class action mess behind him (familiar eh?) the next CEO Dixon awarded us business class trips to anywhere on the network. Tick! However, I would not and will not travel Qantas international ever again. My preferences are Thai or JAL. Fire the board ... unconscionable conduct. Withhold the Irishman's bonus although of course he will challenge that in court. As for the new CEO, would she not have had much to do with the redundancies ... she was, after all, chief financial officer at the time I believe. Bodes well, doesn't it?"