Why have an age discrimination commissioner?

The Federal Attorney-General recently decided to amend the 2004 Age Discrimination Act to provide for a an Age Discrimination Commissioner in response to growing evidence of damaging discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.

This discrimination is all too widespread. It affects older people in the main, though people of any age, including young people, experience age discrimination at times.

We are increasingly aware that many able-bodied, keen and productive employees are forced out of the workforce in their early 50s, sometimes even before that, for no reason other than that the employer has bought into the idea, false as it is, that only younger people are dynamic, energetic and able to learn new ways of doing things.

This is age prejudice and it must be tackled.

Any form of prejudice in our society diminishes the person or the groups suffering from this discrimination and diminishes our society as a whole. At the Australian Human Rights Commission, our slogan is: ‘human rights—everyone, everywhere, every day’. We understand that a person’s human rights do not diminish because of their age, just as they should not be diminished because of their race, gender or in the case of a disability.

Australia has had laws against race, gender and disability discrimination for quite a long time. The Australian Human Rights Commission was established by law in 1986, to protect and advocate human rights and to work against illegal discrimination.

As our society and our law-makers came to understand the terrible damage done to individuals and to society by discrimination we have long been familiar with, they came to the recognition that there is another form of discrimination which potentially affects every single human being, and this is age discrimination.

When I think of the long journey we took in Australia to challenge and then to start to reduce discrimination on the basis of sex, I worry that it might take us another generation to get on top of age discrimination. But when I think this through, I come to the view that age discrimination is something we can challenge today and every day in many effective ways.

While it is always hard to get rid of deep-seated prejudices in society, we’ve all had a bit of experience in doing that and I hope we can learn from that experience and remove the burden of age discrimination quickly and completely.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, my main tool in carrying out this work is the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Like other anti-discrimination laws, it makes illegal discrimination on the basis of age in fundamental areas including employment, finance, education, and goods and services.

The discrimination that is illegal and is causing great damage to individuals and to our economy is most strongly evident in employment.

The discrimination that is illegal and is causing great damage to individuals and to our economy is most strongly evident in employment. I have seen in my short period in this job a great deal of evidence that the mature age worker, and people from 45 are often categorised as mature age, is frequently subjected to workplace discrimination. This unfair treatment can lead to people in their early 50s finding themselves unemployed.

This can be a disaster. Because of age discrimination, people at that age have a very difficult time finding another job. They try hard, they submit many applications, but all too frequently they get knocked back without even an interview.

Of course at that age they are unlikely to have a lot of superannuation and they are not eligible for the age pension. They have to try to manage on the very low Newstart Allowance. Female employees can be in an even worse position because generally they have only small superannuation savings even if they are of an age that they can access their superannuation savings.

At the same time, employers throughout our economy, large and small businesses, are crying out for more skilled workers. Every day the media publishes stories about skills shortages holding back our economic growth.

Well, you might think the solution is obvious. It is in principle, quite obvious to me. Employers need to throw out their prejudices against mature age workers, look closely at the needs of their businesses, and the existing skills of their older workers, and see what steps they need to take to match the two.

In many cases, it will be simply a matter of providing their older workers with some training to upgrade their skills. In other cases, when they consult their employees, they may find that offering them more flexible hours, such as a shorter working week or a shorter working day, will ensure that the employees can keep their jobs and the businesses can continue to profit from their experience and loyalty.

The Hon. Susan Ryan AO was appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner on 30 July 2011. This is an extract from a speech she delivered to a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Forum on the Rights of Older People in Melbourne on 28 October 2011. You can read this speech in full at humanrights.gov.au