23 Sep 2018

Workplace ageism: AUT professor Jarrod Haar

From Sunday Morning, 11:05 am on 23 September 2018

New Zealand has a problem with ageism in the workplace, management professor Jarrod Harr says, and many of the prejudices against older workers are not based on fact.

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Photo: 123RF

The Commission for Financial Capability has surveyed employed people of all ages and found the over 55s are twice as worried about getting a new job if they lose the one they're have - and that worry level rises with age.

"Yes, we do have a problem, I think that's worth acknowledging for sure," Prof Harr of Auckland University of Technology says.

"There's lots of research from the employee's perspective saying 'hey I'm an older worker and I do feel like my opportunities are diminishing'."

On LinkedIn there's been discussion started by someone who hired a man over 50, and detailed the resistance within the company to offering the job: that he wouldn't fit into the culture, he'd take too many sick days, he was over-qualified.

He turned out to be valuable, reliable and a great influence on younger colleagues.

Some listeners reported they did not get the chance he did:

  • "Was made redundant 6 years ago, am now 61. I'm a skilled technician and have had countless rejections."
  • "I'm 65 with 2 degrees. Government departments are the worst ageists."
  • "I'm only 46 and I've given up, sold the house and am about to buy a business for income."

Discrimination against older workers is driven by a prevailing notion that young employees are fresh, energetic, up to date and not set in their ways, but Prof Harr says that's often not right, and older workers provide other benefits that are overlooked.

Professor Jarrod Haar

Professor Jarrod Haar Photo: RNZ/Melita Tull

He says young people may be equally stuck in their ways.

"I do think we seem to have this strange notion that young is fresh and better and willing to accept and we do know a lot of these teenagers, early 20s are coming out with their own patterns quite well established, that organisations have to wrestle with a little bit."

He says the idea that the over 50s have 'out of date' skill sets also ignores the fact that person has been working and learning on the job as technology changes.

"Computers have gone from being the size of a building floor to sitting in a shoulder bag, and we all use technology and the assumption is the young know technology only, and the old have been left behind.

"They [older workers] realise 'hey, this didn't exist when I went to school and I have to work harder to upskill and be current' and I think it's that awareness and drive and hunger from an individual that if they have that they'll be as competent as a 'digital native'.

He says the older worker can be valued as in Māori culture - the kaumatua, the kuia, with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

"Who trains young talent? The old, experienced people who know the ropes, who know the industry and I just think there's so much value there that organisations are being quite foolish about ignoring."

He says research shows older people are often happier in their work too, particularly women aged over 55.

He says companies are going to have to change their mentalities as the employment landscape changes, with 800,000 people expected to be over 50 in the next 20 years.

New Zealand is "harnessing the economic power" of older workers, said the report.

New Zealand is "harnessing the economic power" of older workers, said the report. Photo: 123RF

"Maybe [the solution is] industry bodies talking to their own people to say … 'these are skilled people with lots of valuable skills and we just need to change the attitude towards such workers and be more understanding of the experience that they bring to an organisation.

"Maybe the government departments are a useful place to … take a hands-on role to ensure that they are equally recruiting and hiring older workers as well as young."

He also has some advice for older employed people.

"Don't think 'now that I've hit 50 it's all home and hosed', you should be thinking … 'actually I may have another 20 years worth of work in me, and I need to keep my skills and my networks fresh and up to date.

"Continuous learning is a good activity to undertake, but also that kind of networking - be connected to people because it's often those social relationships ...'I've met this person before, I've heard them talk, they do a good job, I will take a chance on them as opposed to a cold CV that comes through the email'."