Twenty Years of Age Discrimination


114420037_f08201d9b8_oOne month away from my 64th birthday, reflecting on the fact that although homophobia in Australian workplaces is very real – it derailed my partners career a few years ago – it’s never really been a big issue for me. It’s been one I’ve always felt able to manage. But ageism has got me beat.

Like most people my age, I don’t feel old, exactly. A little worn and a little slow, perhaps, but that’s not surprising. If I take a while to make my mind up about something, it’s because my head contains a vast database of memory and experience that I have to evaluate. Which, by the way, is an asset, not a disability. Employers please note.

I’ve lived a full and varied life so far, long enough to watch the wheel come round a second time on many things I thought we had put behind us (bear with me, because I’m about to go off on a bit of a detour – us older folk do that sometimes).

I learned in school that the Great Depression was not solved through austerity programs (which only made things worse), but by big public spending. That was borne out by the experiences of my parents and grandparents. So when the GFC hit, it was self-evident that the Rudd/Gillard governments did the right thing. Go hard, go big, go early. Result: no recession in Oz, and a relatively small debt, which can be comfortably managed. True, there was a very small amount of collateral damage because of the rush with which the stimulus was put in place, but nothing compared to the pain we’d have suffered without it.

Compare and contrast with Europe, which got austerity packages. Massive unemployment, especially among the young, massive increases in poverty, huge social disruption, the rapid rise of extreme nationalism and racism, and the re-emergence fascism and neo-nazism. Alongside very high debt levels – much higher than ours.

Then along comes British upper middle class bogan Abbott, with his Great Big Lie about Debt and Deficit, to prescribe the same European cure for a disease we don’t have. Watch this space as he takes the country down to the level of, say, Greece, where pensioners kill themselves because they can no longer afford to live. Or Spain, where youth unemployment reached almost 60% – not a typo. Or France, Sweden, Holland and the rest of the EU, where far-right and neo-Nazi parties swept the EU elections. Not the sort of world I want to retire in.

One of the major furphys he peddles is that we have some sort of demographic crisis: too many older people, like me, and not enough young people to support us. He’s using that to dump extra burdens on older Australians. That’s not just extremely ageist, it’s scaremongering rubbish: check out this piece by Swinburne Adjunct Associate Professor of Sociology Katherine Betts. Here’s a taste:

Current labour-force participation rates are unusually high because Australia is going through a sweet spot, enjoying the demographic dividend where proportions of children and older people are low compared to what they have been or to what they will be. . .

We can apply current labour-force participation rates to the population projections prepared last year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If we assume greatly increased life expectancy (rising from the early 80s to the early 90s), together with the two-child family and nil net migration, total participation falls to 44 per cent in 2061. This is lower than in 2013 but higher than in the prosperous 1960s. What this means is that a long-lived society enjoying zero population growth would do quite well.

Nevertheless this government is busily trying to force my generation into greater poverty, delaying the age at which super can be accessed, increasing the retirement age. Apparently we are all to be forced to work longer and longer. If anyone will employ us. That’s not going to happen unless Australian employers are forced to radically change their tune.

Which is where my experience of Australian ageism comes in (see, I told you I’d get back to it). I have not had a full time paid job since I arrived in Australia in 1992 at the age of 42. From the start, and for almost five years (thanks to inbuilt discrimination against older migrants), I was not permitted to work while I struggled to gain permanent residence. I kept busy with volunteer work, and long-distance freelance and contract work for overseas employers.

Once I got permanent residence, I spent many years writing letters, attending the (very) occasional interview, volunteering in organisations where I might find paid full or part time work, doing freelance and short term week-to-week contract work, attending training courses . . . . until one day my partner, consoling me after yet another soul-destroying knockback, told me to accept that I would never work again. That was very hard to take – and it still rankles.

I am one of the lucky ones. I do not actually need to work. I would far prefer to contribute to society and earn a living, and I’m vain enough to think I have quite a lot to offer. But if you don’t want me – that’s your loss. Once you’re over 40 – never mind 60 – finding full time work is somewhere between very difficult and downright impossible in this country.

Don’t think I didn’t try, and keep on trying, or that I was too proud. I applied for fill-in jobs, full time jobs, part time jobs. If I lowered my expectations and applied for a low level job, I was “over-qualified”, “too intelligent”, “you’d be bored” etc. etc. If I aimed at jobs commensurate with my experience and qualifications, my “overseas experience was irrelevant”. Then later, that I had been self-employed (out of necessity) too long and “wouldn’t fit in a structured workplace”, “wouldn’t fit our workplace culture.” Which is BS for “your 30-something would-be manager is shit scared you’re cleverer than s/he is, and will show up their inadequacies.”

It’s true that, like most people my age, I have a low tolerance for bullshit, and a tendency to speak my mind. Even as a kid, I never responded well to anyone who demanded as of right, “You will respect me and do as I say because I am your parent manager.”  On the other hand, a competent and confident manager should welcome someone who tells it like it is. Sadly, I never found one brave and clever enough to take the risk.

By 2008 I was forced reluctantly to conclude that my partner was correct, and I gave up beating the drum for a job. I continued to volunteer at various organisations, to campaign for LGBTI rights and assist others to do so, as well as urging the merits of a fairer, co-operative society over a dog-eat-dog competitive one. I like to think I’m still performing that useful function.

So when a government says, “Work till you’re 70,” I have no problem with the concept. But are they going to reform workplace laws and culture to make it possible? So far, their only answer is a small bonus for employers who take on an older worker who fits a very narrowly defined set of circumstances. A token gesture. Age discrimination will continue, and even worsen. Already, fanned by the government’s talk of ‘entitlement’, intergenerational hostility is on the rise.

In my experience, the Australian myth of a fair go is exactly that – a myth – once you reach your 40s. Forget homophobia at work – this is far worse.

Fortunately the consequences for my partner and I are comparatively minor. He will have to work for longer than planned. When he retires, we won’t be mortgage free. We won’t have as much as we would like on which to retire, and may be forced to look to the government for assistance further down the track. And it all relies on his health holding up – something no-one can take for granted as they get older.

All of which is, as I say, minor compared to what people without our advantages will be forced to endure. And I am blessed with a partner who shoulders the burden willingly. Which doesn’t make it any the less discriminatory or unfair.

I have, however, decided that in some respects, enough is enough. Enough working for nothing. Someone puts money on the table – fine, I’m yours. Otherwise, forget it. And enough spreading myself across multiple organisations. I took on too many things, giving none of them my proper attention and doing none of them as well as I would wish. Time to change.

I have already canned my radio show for the foreseeable future (though I’m not ruling out a return to the airwaves with the right vehicle, if a well-heeled and generous sponsor asks me nicely). I have resigned from Kaleidoscope Australia Human Rights Foundation and the Victorian Government Ministerial Advisory Committee.

I have a book to write. And this site to develop. And a hard-working partner to care for. That is enough, at the moment, to focus on. Life under this government, and after, looks like getting tougher. I need to be prepared. Meanwhile, try to enjoy this:

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)