“The calculus of despair”: how recruiters condemn older workers to unemployment

Entrenched prejudice in the recruitment industry is piling older workers onto the unemployment queue, many of them permanently, writes Malcolm King.

May 11, 2017, updated May 11, 2017
In the jobs market, recruiters are judge, jury and executioner. Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

In the jobs market, recruiters are judge, jury and executioner. Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

Think of age prejudice like this. A stylishly dressed young woman tells the men and women over 45 years of age, to get up and move to the back of the bus.

No reason is given. She’s a recruiter hired by an employer you desperately want to work for. She decides whether you work or not, whether your kids will wear good shoes and even whether your marriage will survive years of unemployment.

So you get up and move to the back of the bus. The people sitting next to you look like everyday Australians. They’re all over 45 years of age and they want a job too. Some older people have a job but managers have made it clear that they’re “surplus to requirements”. They’re on the back of the bus with you.

All the recruiter sees is grey hair, balding heads and wrinkles, which to her signifies, “past it”. The next stop is long-term unemployment, which is where you get off.

The “back of the bus” metaphor comes from the “colour bar” which banned black people in the southern states of America, from sitting in the front of the bus, in white sections of restaurants and using “whites only” toilets. The same dynamics of exclusion apply to employment age prejudice.

In South Australia, 19,000 people aged 45 years and above were unemployed, according to ABS figures (February 2017). That’s up from 9,900 people in February 2010. It’s getting crowded on that bus. South Australia is deeply mired in age prejudice.

Not all employers are discriminatory but their relationship with recruiters is highly problematic. Recruiters eliminate older applicants from the final cut of candidates to maximise their chances of a successful placement and commission.

There is no appeal, no accountability and no transparency in the selection process. Recruiters are judge, jury and executioner.

The figures below show a disturbing pattern. If you’re over 55 and have been unemployed for a year, you’ll probably never work full-time again.

The average duration of unemployment by age cohort in Australia (ABS, 2016):

  • 15-24 years: 28 weeks (for those unemployed more than 12 months – 102 weeks)
  • 25-34 years: 33 weeks (long-term 117 weeks)
  • 35-44 years: 48 weeks (long-term 157 weeks)
  • 45-54 years: 58 weeks (long-term 175 weeks)
  • 55-64 years: 116 weeks (long-term 254 weeks)

This is the arithmetic of discrimination; a calculus of despair. Many people 45-64 years of age are in the prime of life. They are categorised and judged in a way that defeats all counter arguments. The attack is based on a person’s age, which is immutable and absolute.

School leavers and young TAFE and university graduates are on the same bus. They are branded “too inexperienced”. When they do get a job in their early to mid 20s, they may only work 25 years or so before they’re made redundant. Then they face the recruiters again. It’s like shooting national productivity in the foot, reloading the gun and shooting the other foot.

Age discrimination works by using the “fallacy of generalisation”. It goes like this: “I know one old guy in my office who is so computer illiterate, I need to turn on his laptop for him. Old guys are past it.”

The clause is false and it underlies most acts of age prejudice. Workplace studies show that some people in their teens and early 20s work quicker and are more dexterous than some people in there 50s – but they make more mistakes. Hardly a rationale for a prejudice.

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Employers and recruiters have drunk deep of the worldview that “old guys” and “old biddies” are déclassé; a barely competent caste of grizzled has-beens, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Older job seekers or workers are not rejected because they are black, Catholic, gay or Muslim. It’s not because they are incompetent or techno-ignorant. It’s because their mothers gave birth to them more than 45 years ago. It’s hard to imagine a more insane basis for a prejudice.

In the 1960s, black academics realised how deeply racism was ingrained in American society. Superficially, the police, state governments and employer groups said they were “right on” in the fight against prejudice – especially after US Civil Rights Bill passed in 1964 – but deep down, institutional attitudes remained the same.

To break the rusted shackles of age prejudice, employers should stop using private recruitment agencies.

Similarly, age prejudice has worked its way in to the cultural and business norms of Australian society. Governments are only too happy to respond to demands for anti-discrimination gestures as they cost little and they can call themselves “progressive”.

That’s why recruitment lobbyists and employer groups are invited to make submissions to government reports on age discrimination, when their members are key players in perpetrating that discrimination.

Nothing is done to eradicate the genetics of age prejudice, so it’s passed from one generation to the next, like an autoimmune disease.

But there have been successes. A group of women aged 36-56 won an important age discrimination case against Virgin, after they were knocked back for flight attendant positions. They were made to dance and sing as a part of the application process. The compensation was considerable.

To break the rusted shackles of age prejudice, employers should stop using private recruitment agencies. By taking ownership of their own staffing needs, employers would save millions in fees, get better hires and show the Australian people they are serious about ranking merit and experience above discrimination.

Universities and TAFE’s must teach recruiter students about their own biases and the effects of organisational inbreeding caused by nepotism and groupthink.

Where a company has been exposed by the media and/or prosecuted for age prejudice, their brand should be given pariah status and shunned by the public. It’s amazing how quickly corporations see the light when their balance sheets bleed red ink.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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