A time for workplace ageism

Michael Gill's decision to sue Fairfax Media has thrown a spotlight on the issue of ageism in the workplace – and it's one businesses need to come to grips with.

It was apt this week that on the same day news broke that former Financial Review Group chief Michael Gill was suing his former employer for $1 million on an age discrimination claim, Fairfax ran a management story headlined: "Over 50? Move aside old 'codger'”.

The article was based on a report from the Financial Services Council, which found that 28 per cent of surveyed workers over the half-century hump said they had suffered some age discrimination. The most common form of discrimination reported by those respondents was "being made redundant before others”.

Aside from the pleasant chuckle from the coincidence, both of these stories do highlight an issue managers are increasingly going to have to deal with not just at Fairfax, but everywhere.

In the media release with that Financial Services Council report, chief executive John Brogden made the point that the aging population and demographic shift meant attitudes to older workers needed to change.

"At current trends, by 2050 there will only be 2.7 working Australians for every citizen over 65. Without action, this will have serious implications for the quality of life of every Australian,” Brogden said in the statement.

As the 'baby boomers' born after the Second World War start to hit retirement age this decade, the movement of the workforce towards maturity has become an inescapable demographic fact. This is a problem for managers, and here's why: a manager's job is, essentially, to discriminate.

Not to discriminate, obviously, in the prejudicial sense, but certainly in the sense of value and usefulness.

As politically incorrect and outrageous as that may seem, the fundamentals of running a business are based on one form of discrimination or another – every choice of one product over another, one person's idea over another, and every hiring and firing decision (and decision not to fire) is making a judgement on the value of a person or thing based on its characteristics. Such practices are discriminatory when the characteristics being used to make the decision have no relevance to the outcome – such as a person's race.

But is age always and necessarily in this "no relevance” category?

After all, there are minimum age restrictions on all sorts of activities at the other end of the spectrum. You can't be US president until you turn 35. How many talented, mature, brilliant 32-year-old presidents have we missed because of that age-discriminatory practice? How many leaders of dominant Western nations descending into dementia while in office could we have avoided in the 1980s if only we had applied a little more age discrimination?

Frankly, we apply forms of discrimination openly, and frequently, in decisions all the time. Even something as fundamental as a person's appearance still defines job opportunities – after all, when was the last time you saw a septuagenarian Grid Girl with a wart on her chin?

Say you want to hire a new social media manager: while it may be correct to say two candidates with a significant age gap have the same level of experience with social media, similar attitudes, work ethics and all the rest, a reasonable argument can be made to discriminate in favour of the younger, simply because the majority of social media users are in that generational bracket. That's a targeted, logical hiring strategy.

To use a simpler analogy: you wouldn't put Alan Jones on Triple J breakfast radio, and you wouldn't put Kyle Sandilands on 2UE. Young people have difficulty listening to and respecting older people, and vice versa. How does a manager reconcile that with increasingly tight age discrimination restrictions, and the threat of a million-dollar lawsuit?

Because unlike race, and unlike gender (let's not get picky here), age does have a bearing on the appropriateness and aptitude of a person to do their job. Sometimes in a positive way, and sometimes not.

Had things gone differently and Gill's replacement Brett Clegg missed out on the job to someone more senior, could he claim his relatively youthful 35 years were in fact sufficient experience, and he was being discriminated against?

The Gill lawsuit and the Financial Services Council report both bring the issue into an uncomfortable open forum for discussion, and this is a discussion that needs to be had. Because Michael Gill is not the first and will not be the last person to be fired from a company he gave decades to, by a younger man, to be replaced by a man nearly half his age. Depending on the outcome in Sydney's federal court, he may well be the first to make a million dollars out of it, though.

Managers everywhere should watch this case closely as it proceeds, because the arguments raised – and the issues it will unveil about decisions to do with employment and age – will only gain importance over the coming decade.

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