Viktoria Rother made a terrible miscalculation. When she took voluntary redundancy aged 45, the former customs officer felt certain that as an educated, single, child-free professional she would soon find full-time work.
But her lack of luck in the job market left her in despair. Finally a recruiter laid out the brutal truth. "She informed me frankly that most employers weren't interested in people my age or older; they preferred to employ those under 40."
"I lost hope of ever finding paid work again," Ms Rother said.
Age and disability discrimination commissioner Susan Ryan. Photo: Rohan Thompson
After hearing countless stories like this, Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan is "enraged at the unfairness" that perfectly capable people in their 50s or younger are constantly being told they are "a bit long in the tooth for this job".
"It is unthinkable that people who lose their jobs in their 50s may live up to another 40 years without paid employment," said Ms Ryan.
Ongoing, systemic age and disability workforce discrimination is not only a massive drain on the economy but has devastating consequences for individuals, a national inquiry led by Ms Ryan has concluded.
Raden Dunbar got a taste of the age discrimination he'd dished out to others when he was hiring in the past.
Roughly a quarter of the population are 55 and over but they make up only 16 per cent of the total workforce. Although 83.2 per cent of people without a disability participate in the workforce, only 53.4 per cent of people with a disability do.
Employment rates of people over 55 drop off sharply, to only 12.7 per cent for people over 65. But in the past decade, the number of people over 45 who say they won't retire before 70 has risen dramatically, from 8 per cent to 23 per cent, the ABS reports. "They expect to, they want to, but will they find jobs?" Ms Ryan said.
Governments want people to work for longer to ease the looming pressure on the budget as the proportion of the population over 65 swells. It is feared the age pension and health systems, which older people will rely on for longer than ever as longevity increases, will become too expensive for the shrinking workforce to fund through taxes.
The inquiry found Australian labour force participation rates for older people and people with disability remain "far too low" and lag behind comparable OECD countries. Even with a 7 per cent increase in the mature age labour force participation rate we would lag behind New Zealand, but the boost to GDP in 2022 would be about 1.4 per cent, or $25 billion, saysthe Grattan Institute.
Every public service job in Australia should have flexible working conditions and targets for employing older workers and people with disabilities, the inquiry recommends. Private employers should have to publicly report progress on hiring older workers and those with disabilities, with the role of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to be expanded to monitor diversity. A national action plan should be developed and federal cabinet should include a minister for longevity, it recommends.
Attorney-General George Brandis said the report was a "very, very important body of work" and a "milestone in public policy making". The recommendations would be considered, Senator Brandis said at the launch earlier this month.
The inquiry heard the same excuses for age and disability discrimination as were once commonly used to justify gender discrimination, "with no basis of evidence for the stereotype", Ms Ryan said. These include that older people or people with disabilities are "unreliable, too distracted by family responsibilities, can't handle high-stress jobs or won't be able to work at a high enough pace".
"I believe that we need the same sort of cultural change in relation to older people and people with disability as we had to push for and finally achieve in relation to women," said Ms Ryan, who pioneered the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as minister assisting the prime minister on the status of women in the Hawke Labor government.
"It is not a niche problem. It is a major demographic fact and we need to deal with it as much as we did with women, but we don't want it to take as long."
After he turned 64, educator and consultant Raden Dunbar got a taste of the age discrimination he'd dished out to others when he was hiring in the past, he told the inquiry. As a recruiter, "I instinctively avoided hiring applicants who were older and more experienced than me – because of a concern that such people might be 'difficult to handle'."
"I now think that, out of self-interest, I didn't want my own standing to be jeopardised by the presence of a much older, more experienced subordinate." Over-qualified, too senior, or over-experienced for the position were the usual excuses made to unsuccessful older applicants. "I could also pretend that they would 'waste the training investment' in view of their purportedly shorter future working lives," Mr Dunbar said.
Programs and subsidies to encourage employers to hire older or disabled workers are ineffective, the inquiry found. The lack of opportunities to gain new skills for mid-life workers from declining industries like manufacturing condemns many capable and experienced workers to "years of poverty on benefits".
Ms Ryan said older workers are also vulnerable to rip-offs under the rorting that has plagued the vocational education and training industry. "We need to make sure that ... training is linked to a skill shortage in the area that they can realistically be trained to fill, not just some private provider who is enrolling them in something with a fancy name," she said.
The report does not argue for special treatment for older workers or people with disabilities. The best person for the job should always get it, Ms Ryan said.
Viktoria Rother, now 53, is now adding to her stack of degrees with a master's of environmental management and sustainability online through the University of Newcastle. Employers "think that those of us who are over 40, our brains are atrophied and we can't possibly learn anything new. I find it insulting," she says. But she feels optimistic about her chances in a growing field. It is a "completely different and new career path for me because I think the government wants me to work until I am 103", she says.