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There might be an assumption that older workers are not necessarily engaged or performing at the same rate as younger workers .
That might be because our standards have shifted over time and we haven ’ t supported people to upskill themselves over time as well . So there ’ s a relationship then between our age stereotypes and our access to training .
Is age taken into consideration when applying for grants or to be a PhD candidate , for example ? It should not be taken into account . It is not a criteria , and in fact it would be age discrimination and something that could be challenged with an equality agency if your age was taken into account .
We do not encourage people to put their age on their CV , but of course we know we can tell how old someone is based on when they completed their first degree or when they went to school .
Age should be irrelevant . And really , we should be looking at people as a whole and taking that into consideration . Of course , one of the challenges is : even if we don ’ t want to take age into account , we might still subliminally consider it .
We need to confront these inherent biases and actually acknowledge that our brain might stereotype on the basis of age , even if we don ’ t really intend to .
How can universities do better in terms of age inclusiveness ? I think we really need to confront these stereotypes or these implicit assumptions that we have about age . So much of what we do is done unthinkingly . Staff at universities tend to be under time pressure , and so we revert to mental shortcuts because it saves time . But we need to acknowledge that often these mental shortcuts are doing us a disservice .
We need to start having these difficult conversations about the way that age plays into our practices . We need to be confronting age discrimination when it occurs , and calling it out and challenging it .
At the same time though , often age discrimination occurs through these micro-conversations , or micro-aggressions , in the workplace particularly . It ’ s the snide comment that we might not think much of , but which people might feel really affects them because of their age .
At a structural level too , I think we need to confront the way universities approach times of financial stress . Obviously , COVID has been very difficult , and some universities have instantly leaned into voluntary retirement schemes , removing people over the age of 50 .
While it ’ s obviously beneficial to avoid forced redundancies , constantly removing older staff members through voluntary retirement is a really risky strategy that undermines the age-friendliness in institutions .
What are the risks if universities keep removing older academics ? We ’ re really losing significant expertise . One of the things that perhaps is assumed is that we can remove someone who is very senior and replace them with a junior academic , and they ’ re interchangeable . But that ’ s actually not the way that it plays out in practice .
If we want to employ someone at a junior level , we need to support them , we need to train them and we need to give them the experiences that help them become a well-rounded academic . If we don ’ t have people who are experienced in these processes and practices , we start expecting very junior staff to do things like coordinate large scale units , and to take on leadership positions , when actually we should be protecting them , encouraging them and supporting them to build their career .
What strategies can universities and workplaces implement to avoid age discrimination ? I would dearly love to see universities really tackling inclusion and diversity as a priority . We are starting to tackle sexual harassment through training and important conversations about how we prevent such conduct , but I think we need to extend that to address other forms of inequality and discrimination .
We also need to make it more interactive , encouraging people to have these conversations that address their implicit biases and assumptions about people of different ages .
I also think we need some best practice examples of how we can really promote age friendliness in the workplace , and how we can embed those initiatives to be basically forms of structural change , not just a facade of change .
Constantly removing older staff through voluntary retirement is a risky strategy .
There are really strong movements afoot to promote better age friendly structures , promoting interaction across different age groups . And I think this is really important , but we need to embed those initiatives and make sure that they are resilient forms of structural change .
How can we better educate society about that ? We have many ways of measuring age that aren ’ t just chronological . There are other things that are perhaps more important , like our capacity and our enthusiasm . It ’ s more relevant than the number that ’ s on the piece of paper .
We do know that , by promoting interaction with people of different ages , we can start to actually tackle these stereotypes and assumptions headon . Previously we might have seen that through intergenerational interaction in the home via multi-generational households , but increasingly we ’ re seeing less of that interaction .
We can encourage people to work together across different age groups , to really tackle those assumptions and show that people are not the stereotypes that we often hold . The best way to do that is through meaningful inter-group interaction .
To what extent do people make complaints about age discrimination ? My research over the last few years has found that , typically , while we are protected under the law from age discrimination in employment , it is very rare for people to use the legal processes that are available . It might be because it ’ s easier just to ignore the behaviour , or to leave and find another job . There ’ s potentially a fear of consequences or reprisals in the institution if people are seen as asserting their rights .
There ’ s also a fear that it will be financially or emotionally costly to go through this process . One of the real challenges is that we have equality agencies trying to offer accessible , simple processes to resolve problems and seek structural change , but people are very reluctant to use them . ■