News

Give older workers a $1000 makeover to help them find work



23 April 2012

How much body work does $1000 buy? In many ways this is a more sensible question than how many jobs will be created for people over 50 by offering workplaces small sums of money to hire them.

The Federal Government has announced its plan to encourage employers to consider older workers by offering $1000 to those who hire and retain workers over 50 for three months.

However, $1000 is a relatively small sum for many businesses in the recruitment process. Further, this payment runs the risk of stigmatising older workers, because the idea of having to pay employers to hire a perfectly capable and highly experienced 50-year-old runs the risk of perpetuating stereotypes.

It could be argued that hiding your age might be a more effective strategy than such incentive payments to employers. Women, in particular, who re-enter the workforce report significant challenges and costs in trying to look younger in order to compete in the labour market.

There is some evidence to suggest even people in the 45-55 age bracket are mildly offended by images of older people.

Research I undertook with a university colleague showed there is ambivalence towards the use of images of older people in advertising.

We used the images from Dove's anti-ageing campaign, which used the line, "Too old to be in an anti-ageing ad," alongside the image of a naked, lean, tanned, beautiful older woman to kick-start discussion in our focus groups.

We were surprised by the strident responses some women expressed towards this image. While some women thought the advertisements were empowering, most women aged 45-55 expressed disquiet or even disgust at the image.

In the focus groups the women talked about the body work they engaged in to look younger so that they continued to be seen and heard at work and when applying for new jobs.

While most, though not all, of the women eschewed the idea of plastic surgery, they agreed they worked at disguising their age, making use of make-up, hair colour and Botox to get through the door for interviews.

A recruitment consultant who participated in one of the focus groups was adamant that if you were over 45 there was no way you should include a photograph of yourself in your resume.

Other research I have undertaken with a colleague in the UK found that male hedge fund traders who were 35-plus spent quite a bit of time and money on keeping fit, colouring hair and whitening teeth to ensure that they were still seen as up to it in what is generally considered a young person's game.

Being 50 may not seem or feel old, unless you are someone who is over 50 and looking for work.

Research and personal anecdotes attest that older workers are perceived as slower to learn, set in their ways, change-adverse, inflexible, and oh yes, hopeless with technology. There are a series of intergenerational reports and business case arguments from consulting groups, such as Accenture, countering such negative perceptions and spelling out the benefits of employing older workers, including loyalty, experience, problem-solving skills and greater flexibility.

But most employers continue to prefer younger people when it comes to recruiting. Perhaps this is not surprising in a culture where vitality, energy and innovation are seen as synonymous with youth.

It's time for a rethink. Firms, particularly those that rely on excellent customer service and sales to grow their business, might want to consider the benefits of reflecting their customer base through their workforce.

But as long as we as a society continue to equate dynamism and flexibility with youthfulness, the experiences of the women and men who participated in my research lead me to suggest the Federal Government would be better paying the $1000 to 50-plus job seekers so that they can get themselves a serious makeover.

Dr Leanne Cutcher is a senior lecturer in work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School.


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