Ageism at work

We’re being told we’ll have to work longer; but our workplaces still seethe with discriminatory attitudes. Too expensive. Less up-to-date. Less capable. How can these stereotypes be tackled? With Associate Professor Kathleen Riach and Professor Gavin Jack.

Younger workers worry about older workers holding up their promotions or blocking the best jobs. Older workers feel the skills they’ve worked to attain for their entire life aren’t respected. These are common intergenerational tensions within in a workplace.

But when research shows managers over 50 discriminate against people their own age, it is clear the business world isn’t adapting as well as to our changing demographics as we need it to. Throw in precarious work, the gig economy and glum commentary around employment chances for the over-50s, and it seems a dire picture.

But there’s an upside.

“What we seem to be forgetting in this argument is that organisations are made by people. We have the control and we have the power to change the way that we think about management and change the way that we think about organisations,” says Associate Professor Riach.

Read the transcript

Michael Pascoe:  Hello. I’m Michael Pascoe. Welcome to Thought Capital, the podcast that delves into the wealth of ideas created by the experts at Monash Business School in Melbourne, Australia.

First, the good news. We’re living longer. Now, the bad news. We have to pay for it. On present trends, by 2050, eight out of 10 people in the developed world will be over 60. Diseases are being cured, living standards are improving, we’re staying healthier for longer, but to pay for our way of life, we need to stay productive, to stay workers. The Australian economy cannot afford to keep an ageing population out of the workforce, yet companies are almost always looking for younger talent when they recruit. Many people are made to feel redundant at work because of their age.

Kathleen Riach:  In terms of age discrimination formally, it’s a relatively small number. In terms of age biases and age inequalities in workplaces, we know that it’s endemic.

Michael Pascoe: It doesn’t seem like the business world is adapting as well as our demographics. Two experts who know a lot about ageing in the workplace are Professor Gavin Jack and Associate Professor Kat Riach, both from the Department of Management. Welcome to Thought Capital. You’re but kids, barely Gen X. What made you interested in ageing?

Kathleen Riach:  I think ageing is in everyone’s interests to look out for in terms of workplaces, but more importantly, I think it’s about having productive conversations about who we include in workplaces and who we celebrate in workplaces, and likewise, who we make marginalised inadvertently or deliberately in our practices, or in our processes, or even our day to day attitudes and perceptions about what makes a good worker or a productive worker.

Michael Pascoe: That sounds like a little bit of sociology, but of course, you’re into management. What makes it management?

Gavin Jack:  In a recent report by the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2015, which surveyed over 2,000 workers over the age of 50, 30% of the managers in that survey said that they took age into account when making decisions about recruitment and selection. That was taken into account in a negative way, in other words saying, “What we seem to have here is an older worker. Perhaps that’s someone that we don’t want to employ. Perhaps they’re more expensive to employ. Perhaps they are less up-to-date and less capable.” These are the myths or the stereotypes that seem to pervade this debate that managers need to grasp hold of so that their unconscious biases, potentially, don’t affect sound decision-making for organisations.

Michael Pascoe:  That sends a number of hares running in different directions. You’re saying that management who are over 50 actually discriminate against workers who are their same age.

Gavin Jack:  What they’re saying is that, indeed, they are making decisions where age is a criteria that comes to the fore in the decisions that they make. There’s evidence, of course, for unconscious bias. There’s plenty of academic evidence for how that works in influencing decisions, but this is a much more explicit owning up to the way in which age may play a factor in decisions that they’re making.

Kathleen Riach:  For me, as a researcher of age, that’s one of the exciting dimensions about age as a really complex phenomenon. Not everyone who’s 50 will be classed as an older worker. Usually, we’re talking about people where their identity may be intersected or related to gender, to ethnicity, to possibly their socioeconomic position as well. We find the people who are affected by age discrimination are those who are of lower socioeconomic groups, are usually female, and they may be part of a minority status. So when we talk about the older worker, we’re not necessarily saying it’s directly aligned with your chronological age. It’s about how people perceive you and the power resources you hold, and also the position you hold in society, as well.

Michael Pascoe:  I’ve been around as a business journalist for a long time, observing management. Forgive me if I have a fairly cynical view of it. Management tends to follow more often than lead. Is management simply behind the economic reality of the changing workforce? Is it actually still with a mindset of jobs for life in one corporation, as opposed to people swapping jobs all the time?

Kathleen Riach:  I don’t think it’s the case that management are necessarily behind the trend, or indeed that they’re going to catch up with any trends about the ageing population. I think it’s more about we tend to assume that talent looks a particular way. The image that we have is that talent is going to be that bright young thing coming out of, increasingly, a business school, and is going to be able to mould themselves in the way that the organisation wants them to look like, as opposed to coming in as a slightly older worker and bringing, what the perception is, is a baggage of perceptions or ideas of ways of doing things. I think the larger debate is more about we expect to have these green workers which we can shape in the way that we want them to shape, as opposed to these individuals coming in who may carry biases or ways of doing things that aren’t amenable to our organisation.

Michael Pascoe:  With all respect to the Monash Business School, graduates know nothing compared with people who have actually been in the workforce for a fair while. I’m showing my age, obviously, my own discrimination. What’s the reality in terms of what management needs to have?

Kathleen Riach:  I think the really interesting question that you raise there is the idea of intergenerational tension, where we hold expectations about what people who we may not see ourselves as being like have in terms of their qualities and capabilities. We know that intergenerational tension is an increasingly problematic aspect of life, where we have younger workers, for example, worried about older workers holding up their promotion potential or their ability to get a job, and likewise, we see older workers feeling that they’ve worked for their entire life and then the pension that they were promised isn’t there, or younger workers coming in and not respecting their skills and experience. I think it’s part of a larger issue surrounding intergenerational tensions.

Michael Pascoe:  Okay. That tension exists within the workforce. What should an enlightened management be doing about it?

Gavin Jack:  One of the challenges for organisations is how to rethink career models, to diversify those career models, and to project them forward for 55 through 65 into 70 as well, and then to think from there about what are the training development needs of workers and managers. How will the physical and psychological aspects of the workplace be adapted to meet those different needs and motivations for an age-diverse workforce?

Michael Pascoe:  Until you just mentioned 60s and 70s then, we were still playing in the 50s area. Let’s just stay in the 50s for a minute. How common is age discrimination there?

Kathleen Riach:   In 2016-2017, there were just over 150 formal complaints about age discrimination, but really what we’re looking at there is the tip of the iceberg in terms of how age inequality manifests. On the one hand, we have age discrimination where laws are explicitly broken because age has been unfairly used on account of a decision being made in the workplace. On the other hand, we have broader and more insidious age biases, where there’s been subtle perceptions or distinctions being made that have in turn marginalised people on account of their age. In terms of age discrimination formally, it’s a relatively small number. In terms of age biases and age inequalities in workplaces, we know that it’s endemic, and it’s growing, particularly in the current economic crisis where they’re seen as increased competition for jobs, for example.

Michael Pascoe:  How much of the managers’ discrimination is based on economics? I look at journalism, an industry under threat. Older, more experienced people are more expensive. Flick them. Hire some kids. Is it that basic, as well?

Gavin Jack:  That would certainly be something that comes into play, as I mentioned earlier, around managers owning up to age being a factor in decision-making. The idea that an older worker is more expensive can be from a cost or efficiency point of view a core reason, perhaps, not to engage them. That’s an incredibly narrow way, of course, of thinking about maximising one’s best talent within the organisation. The wisdom and the knowledge that come along with that can actually be a greater benefit to the organisation and perhaps outweigh any cost that you might have in mind at the initial decision-making point.

Michael Pascoe:  How do you teach management to overcome its innate biases and backwardness?

Gavin Jack:  Corporates and public-sector organisations seem to be investing a lot of their money here around unconscious bias training, and looking in particular at how that may play out in the recruitment and selection. Going back to the Australian Human Rights Commission report from 2015, they’re pointing to two areas where age discrimination seems to be an issue. One is within workplaces themselves, and through career and promotions, assumptions and lack of inclusion within the organisation, but more of a problem around that recruitment and selection issue. It’s partly training around surfacing unconscious biases, busting myths and stereotypes, perhaps, around older workers, and then from there, reframing the value that an older worker can bring to the organisations, and to start to promulgate those more positive narratives and images around the older worker.

Kathleen Riach:  There is also an issue in terms of management, and the future of management, and the future of leaders in terms of how we are teaching, or training, or educating the next generation to think about work, and how we’re going to address these grand challenges. If we think about ageing, it’s a grand challenge that’s affecting us globally. It’s not enough for our future leaders and managers to say, “That’s all very well, but we’re going to hire the best young talent. Age diversity is for everyone else, not for our top companies.” I think it’s about setting up responsibility for the future of the workforce onto the current generation.

Michael Pascoe: Let’s move it on a decade or two. There’s already discrimination against the 50-pluses. A lot of common commentary about if you lose your job when you’re 50-something, it’s hard to get back in. Take it on that next couple of decades. What’s the difference there?

Gavin Jack: Perhaps using some of our research around this might be interesting. The research that we’ve done around women’s health and well-being, particularly women over the age of 55-plus, the data there suggests that as those women age, their mental health improves. They’re more committed to the organisation. Their work engagement tends to be higher, and they tend to be more satisfied with the work that they’re doing. That’s especially so for workers who are 60-plus, and even more so for those few that we’ve managed to survey who are 65 years and above. There’s this interesting positive correlation that seems to happen around the older that the worker gets, in this case those women that we’ve surveyed across universities and also in hospitals in Melbourne, too.

Michael Pascoe:  Why?

Gavin Jack: We take positive psychological health, for instance. Some women, and this certainly comes up in some of the interviews that we’ve done, feel that they’re perhaps juggling a little bit less, perhaps under fewer instances of acute stress than they might be in their mid-40s or early 50s, for example. They may have different sorts of caring responsibilities, but also in their interviews, a greater sense of more control over their lives and a destiny that’s perhaps shaped by their own needs and interests later on in life, rather than those of partners, or children, or the multiple others that are important for women at any point in time. That greater sense of, I think, autonomy, of working for oneself, and of making purposive choices to fulfil those needs is certainly something that would correlate with more positive mental health.

Michael Pascoe:  There’s a figure around saying, for the first time in Australia, most workers aren’t in a full-time job that actually has leave entitlements, the gig economy, the independent contractor. What happens to the whole structure of our normal society, of what used to be our normal society? Where does ageism come into a gig economy?

Kathleen Riach:   I think the increasing precarity of labour and the precarity of the economy has huge implications for age discrimination. On the one hand, it may be that you feel people have the choices to what work they do and when they do it. I don’t buy that myth. I think it’s about people not being looked after and people expending a lot of their energy in labour, and in turn, they don’t get much in exchange. I would say one of the huge challenges we have in terms of the gig economy is really looking towards what that’s doing to people’s future in terms of thinking about their superannuation and their career futures, as well, how they plan or are able to plan their futures, both in terms of their jobs but also more broadly in terms of their lives.

Michael Pascoe:  Ageism. Is it getting worse in a digital world? I think the point of having children is to have someone to be able to program your TV for you at a certain age, but does the revolution in technology tend to work against those of us who aren’t teenagers?

Kathleen Riach:   Looking at the evidence, it’s more about perception than actuality.

Michael Pascoe:  No, I can’t program my TV. I do need … Sorry. Keep going.

Kathleen Riach:  There’s two issues when it comes to play. Of course, there’s a huge stereotype that older workers are hesitant to change when working with technology, and so on, and so forth. If we actually look at the evidence, that’s not the case, and there’s two reasons for that. One is we know that the way that we encourage people to learn about technology is usually orientated towards a young person’s perspective, in terms of Generation Y or millennials. What you’ll often find is it will be a millennial or Generation Y writing the instruction manual, and they are orientated to technology in a very different way. They’ve grown up with technology. That doesn’t mean that they’re ipso facto less or more capable than a baby boomer, for example. I think one of the issues is making sure that we encourage development and training in a way that is written in light of a baby boomer’s perspective surrounding technology.

Kathleen Riach:   The second dimension, in terms of the digital economy, is I think it’s going to have implications not only for older workers but also for younger workers, as well. It’s really going to have to make us reimagine what a career looks like. That’s not just for older workers in terms of a later life career and what might be called a second or third career, but also in terms of those who are going into the workforce in their 20s now will more than likely have to work until they’re 70, and are going to be facing roughly four career changes throughout their lives.

Michael Pascoe:  Then throw in the ever-present threat of AI taking off. The robots are coming.

Gavin Jack:  I think the robots have always been coming, haven’t they? You just wonder if they’re actually finally catching up with us. I certainly think that’s a new frontier for management thought that requires research and thought about what is the nature of this challenge going forward, and how can organisations and governments best leverage the opportunities there, but also better understand what are the threats.

Michael Pascoe:  Is it too early to say whether the digital natives will handle it easier, or not?

Kathleen Riach:   What we seem to be forgetting in this argument is that organisations are made by people. We have the control and we have the power to change the way that we think about management and change the way that we think about organisations. If we look at the history of management, people have been very creative and imaginative in how they’ve actually done that to make sure that people have meaningful jobs that they enjoy, that they can gain fulfilment for, as well as being financially rewarding in some way for themselves and for the economy.

Kathleen Riach:  The next generation of management is going to look different. The next generation of organisations is going to look different. How can we make sure they look different in a way that makes sure that work is meaningful for people, and that people enjoy their job, and can be in that job for a long time?

Michael Pascoe:  How do we rate in that bigger picture of age discrimination internationally? Australians love to rank themselves. Are we better or worse than average?

Kathleen Riach:  Australia is aware of their ageing demographic and they’re aware of coming up with positive solutions to the challenges that may emerge. If we look at organisations in the global north, for example, so North America, the majority of European countries, and so forth, we’re all facing these grand challenges. What we find is the enduring problem is interpersonal perceptions and biases in organisational practices. Time and time again, we’re coming back to these small, day to day conversations that either promote or marginalise people on account of an unfair marker of their age.

Michael Pascoe:  There are countries that are ageing a lot faster than we are. Japan, Italy, obviously the workforce, the population is shrinking. They’ve got a greater imperative to start to get it right, haven’t they?

Kathleen Riach:  I think it’s not a problem to be solved. The ageing demographic means that we’re going to have to alter the way we think about organisational life, the way we think about careers, the way we think about retirement, for example, and certainly the way we think about intergenerational relationships. This should be seen as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity that managers, and we look at a vast majority of managers, don’t put into the too hard pile. They’re willing to take it up and think, “How can we actually productively engage with this in a way that is going to make our company successful, in a way that’s going to benefit our company and our stakeholders?”

Gavin Jack:  It comes up time and time again in our studies and also in others in this area that that line manager in the immediate work environment, if anything, is the key lever.

Michael Pascoe: Final area. As we move on, people in their 60s, people in their 70s, and who knows where it all ends? Physically, do workplaces have to change? Is there a message for management in that?

Gavin Jack:  Certainly. I think there’s opportunities for organisations to think about their workplace design, the physical layout of their organisations, as well as the psychosocial aspects as well, the extent to which social interaction is encouraged, how are communities built to create meaningful work relations, too. There are certainly some quite straightforward things that organisations can do around reasonable accommodations or adjustment to the physical workspace, how a workstation is set out, for example, enabling a less sedentary working style, perhaps, encouraging people to stand up more, move around more.

Kathleen Riach:  The concerns that we have to be aware of is that there’s increasing rates of burnout, increasing rates of mental health illness due to the work intensification of younger workers. If we expect them to work into their 60s, 70s, possibly 80s, we have to make sure that there’s not going to be a gradual accumulation of psychosocial, mental, and physical ill health that’s going to mean that they’re not going to be able to work into those 60s, the 70s, the 80s decades. I think age management, if we want to call it that, is not just about focusing on the here and now of older workers in our workforce. It’s about thinking about how are we going to ensure that all our workers grow up and older in a way that is sustainable, both to the organisation but also to the individuals themselves.

Michael Pascoe: There is a particular aspect of ageing that you’ve both been looking into researching, menopause. It affects half the population, more than half the population at that age. It’s not part of the general debate. What has attracted you to it? What have you found?

Gavin Jack:  In terms of what attracted us to it, I think there are two answers to that question. One is quite personal, and the other one is more about our roles as academics, I suppose. The personal reason is that we’ve done this research in a team context now for a few years. One of our research team members, Dr. Jan Schapper, who’s sadly passed away now, it was actually her initial idea. It took place over a cup of coffee, and just chatting with us about her own experiences of being a menopausal woman at work, and attempting to have a conversation with her line manager, who was a male at the time, about perhaps some of the trickier aspects of having hot flushes in the workplace, particularly in meetings, where it became only too visible that she was experiencing some of those symptoms.

Gavin Jack:  She had quite a negative experience in terms of trying to open up a conversation. Jan asked us, “Has there actually been any research done on women’s experience of menopause in the workplace and how managers can perhaps have productive conversations that don’t cause embarrassment and further anxiety for the female employee?” We looked at some of the literature and found that whilst there’s a lot of medical and psychosocial research, the actual workplace context, the environment of work, its physical and psychosocial dimensions, how those shape women’s experiences, there was very, very little that had been conducted on that work. So partly, the work is personally driven.

Gavin Jack:  Partly, it’s also a wider professional interest in workplace diversity and gender equality. The way in which health and health episodes are experienced at work is gendered. The sorts of health episodes that men and women have may well differ, and those then tell us something about the way in which gender discrimination may intersect with age discrimination at work.

Michael Pascoe:  Your research found?

Gavin Jack: There is a two-way relationship between women’s experience of menopause and the workplace. We conducted survey work in three universities and then subsequently three hospitals. We were trying to understand whether there seemed to be a relationship between the frequency of reported symptoms, or hot flushes and night sweats, sleep disturbance, and work outcomes. Is there a relationship between those symptoms, for instance, and how committed a woman is to the organisation, how satisfied they are with their job, how engaged they feel at work, whether or not they intend to leave the organisation within the short term?

We found that there was a significant relationship between the two of those. In other words, the more frequently and the more bothersome a particular symptom was reported to be by those women, the less engaged they felt at work, the less their job satisfaction was, the less committed they were to the organisation, and the more likely they intended to quit the organisation as well. That’s the first study that’s found those relationships between, I suppose, symptoms and work outcomes.

Kathleen Riach:  I think one of the most important things that came out of our research was the two-way relationship. Yes, menopause and menopausal symptoms may affect people’s relationship with work and the work outcomes, as Gavin said, but at the same time, the workplace can have a significant effect upon people’s experience of menopause, as well. It can exacerbate people’s experience of hot flushes. It can worsen people’s lack of sleep or sleep-related symptoms. It can make them feel stigmatised at work. It can marginalise them in the workplace.

Kathleen Riach:  I think picking up on those two dimensions, where we don’t just simply say, “Menopause affects productivity,” it’s more about saying, actually, workplace conditions negatively impact women’s experience of menopause. Actually, if we look at what the research was telling us, there’s a number of things that organisations can do to stop or at least lessen those negative conversations.

Michael Pascoe: Such as?

Gavin Jack:  Using modifiable factors in the workplace that may not necessarily be expensive for organisations. The first is that women were saying to us that, “We would like, first of all, more information about the nature of menopause itself.” Some of our interviewees expressed the fact that even going to the GP, some of their doctors’ own knowledge about menopause could be quite sketchy. Workplaces are, in fact, potentially very important sources of information that allow women to better understand what might be going on for them at that particular point in time.

Michael Pascoe: Is that fair, to put a societal educational problem onto management? Shouldn’t we have ads on TV rather than an educational program at work?

Kathleen Riach:  I would say yes, but more. I would say of course it’s part of a broader social education, but we have to accept that actually work constitutes a key part of people’s identity and also a key part of people’s lives. People are spending up to 60 hours a week in their workplaces. We know that organisations have broader wellness agendas because we know that well and happy employees are more productive employees. Therefore, organisations have a sense of duty or even responsibility to look after their employees. This may be, as Gavin said, giving them information about what might happen, and giving them information about what might happen to their partners later on in life, and being an inclusive place where we can acknowledge different stages and episodes in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it a conversation about performance or a negative conversation.

Michael Pascoe:  That’s the first thing.

Gavin Jack:  The second thing is that women consistently said, “We do not want a menopause-specific policy to be introduced into the workplace, because that would shine a spotlight on a personal experience that perhaps we don’t want to have.” Instead, the suggestion here would be to think about introducing menopause into part of the wider health and well-being or healthy aging strategies or supports and resources that an organisation may already have in place. That would be the second thing that came out as important.

Gavin Jack:  Probably two others to say. We found particularly for the large number of women who experienced hot flushes and night sweats that there are simple things that organisations can do to give women more control over the temperature of the workplace environment. A simple thing-

Michael Pascoe:  Hang on. This is a dangerous area. In all the world’s wars, the one between the air conditioning, or blokes in coats and girls in dresses, is never going to be resolved. You’re making it more complicated by bringing menopause into it.

Gavin Jack:  It’s perhaps not just a divide between men and women but also between women in shared office spaces themselves. An organisation could provide discreet desk fans, for example, that could be used, because it is much more difficult, of course, in a shared office space to have any one person perhaps asking for temperature control. We found that those women who did have access to control over the temperature of the workplace environment reported fewer and less bothersome symptoms than women that did not.

Kathleen Riach:  It’s not just about the small aspects. It’s not just about being able to control your temperature. It’s not just about being able to procure a fan for your desk without filling in 10 forms in an organisation and having to speak to two line managers. What it’s about is an acknowledgement and an ability for women to control their environment in a way that allows them to be productive and allows them to be happy in their workplace. On the one hand, it’s about the physical symptoms of menopause. On the other hand, it’s about the symbolic aspect of making it a friendly place for menopausal women to work.

Kathleen Riach:  The vast majority of women we spoke to didn’t see it as problematic that they were menopausal women in the workplace. The challenge came when organisations started to see them as problematic in the workplace. I think one of the things, no matter the context, or the sector, or the industry, as soon as you start labelling and framing people as problems, you’re going to find problems.

Michael Pascoe: Until you manage that, the trick is to employ older women and you’ll take over the world. Professor Gavin Jack, Associate Professor Kat Riach, thank you.

Kathleen Riach:  Thank you.

Gavin Jack: Thank you.

Michael Pascoe:  You’ve been listening to Thought Capital from Monash Business School. You can find out more at

Michael Pascoe: If you enjoyed Thought Capital also listen to Just Cases. Just Cases is the show about the biggest legal cases you’ve never heard of. Every day law courts make decisions that change the lives of those in the room. Some decisions change society itself. You can find Just Cases on iTunes, Stitcher and Sound Cloud.

Thought Capital is produced by Tina Zenou. Editing and post-production by Nadia Hume. Technical support by Gareth Popplestone. The executive producer is Helen Westerman.

Published on 5 Dec 2018