Iconic Ita rides again. And that’s good news for old people wanting to go on working.

Ita Buttrose is back in the news, in a very good way. As PM Morrison’s captain’s pick for the position of Chair of the ABC, she has featured – before, during and after her appointment – in a variety of articles about various aspects of this action.

Should or shouldn’t Morrison have followed procedure? Does or doesn’t her background make her a good choice? How independent is she likely to be?

Overall, the consensus is that with her vast experience in a variety of high flying media and board positions, and with what is known about her as a fair-minded and very accomplished person who is also across many of the social issues of our day, she looks like being an excellent appointment.

And, at the same time, what is truly gratifying to me, as someone on guard for signs of ageism, is that in not one single instance that I have seen or heard did anyone question her suitability for the position and its five year contract, on account of being 77 years old (and unabashedly looking her age).

This may seem like a trivial thing, but this comes at a time when many older people are having difficulty in finding and keeping their jobs.

So the fact that a high profile employer both recognises a 77-year-old’s talent and wants to capitalise on it is a significant step forward, since the progressive shift of our population into healthy longevity means that more people want to work for longer before retiring.

And while more employers are recognising and taking advantage of this (Bunnings is a prime example), research shows that there is quite a long way to go yet.

As pointed out by COTA, in 2018 the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Employing Older Workers report found that “almost a third of Australian employers break the law by setting an age limit for job applicants”.

This is despite its other findings, that 76 per cent of employers “recognise the value of the experience older workers bring,” and 68 per cent “the professional knowledge they possess…And more respondents across all categories said there was no difference between the generations at work.”

Encouraging though those latter findings are, there are – from the other side – the problematic realities described by older workers and would-be workers.

A 2018 survey carried out by the online jobs portal Indeed found that “almost a third of people interviewed experienced discrimination based on their age, compared to gender (8.8 per cent) and nationality (7.7 per cent).”

And a 2017 study by Melbourne University was entitled Rusty, invisible and threatening: ageing, capital and employability, on the basis of their findings that older workers felt that they were viewed as “rusty – slow, unfit, and at risk of workplace injury.

Mature age job seekers, especially women, felt that they were ‘invisible’.” And, in general, they thought that they were seen to be “‘threatening’ – resistant to change, and less willing or able to adapt.”

So it’s not surprising that, as noted by Ian Yates of COTA, “tens of thousands of mature, well qualified Australians are still being ruled out on the basis of their age, before they even have the chance to demonstrate they have the skills, experience and ability for the job – and this is all illegal under the Age Discrimination Act.”

According to Dr Ruth Williams of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, “we hear all about the challenges and the doom and gloom, and the tsunami of [older] people but the mindset needs to be completely flipped.”

As she told The Guardian in 2017, in fact “they are a huge untapped resource…

Older workers bring a lifetime of experience, networks and tacit knowledge that can’t simply be written down and left for their successors.”

And more broadly, in the words of Kate Gregorevic writing recently in the Canberra Times in 2019, “we need to start recognising the skills and resources that are gained with experience so that we can create the kind of society we want to live in when we ourselves are lucky enough to reach older age.”

And with Ita leading the charge, so say all of us who have reached that stage.

Image: Roderick Eime.

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