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Older job hunters and the creation of uselessness

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 28 August 2008


While the notion of “usefulness” might seem hopelessly utilitarian, the trials of older Australians looking for work is a story of age prejudice and deception at a time when the nation needs their brains most.

I run a small professional writing and marketing business. I write advertisements, resumes and conduct basic market research. I am vitally interested in the nexus between government educational policy and people getting jobs.

I followed the fortunes of three of my clients over a nine-month period. Karl, 54, had been retrenched from the automotive industry. He wanted to get a job in an office doing data entry. Peter, 40, was a house husband who, after three years looking after the kids, wanted to get back in to marketing. Michaela, 48 was a former academic who simply wanted a job. All three had their resumes written by me.

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Currently the Australian unemployment average is 4.9 per cent. According to the Review of Higher Education (DEEWR, 2008) “The ageing of the population will pose particular problems for workforce participation and productivity. At an industry level, skills shortages will be exacerbated over the next decade as large numbers of experienced workers retire. For the overall economy, as the population ages, there is a risk that the rate of participation in the workforce will fall, reducing output and productivity.”

Workforce participation by age
Source: ABS Census 2006 data
Workforce participation by higher level of qualification by age

I picked Karl, Peter and Michaela because as former clients they had consistently gotten “thanks but no thanks letters” after job interviews. I told them that persistence pays off. But after nine months and a stream of rejection letters to all three people, I stopped using glib clichés and started investigating.

The problem was that Peter and Michaela were over qualified as they both had post graduate qualifications and all three were “over age” for 90 per cent of the jobs that were available.

These were three normal people. Karl had just finished a computer course specialising in desktop publishing at his local TAFE. All were erudite and presented well.

Ageist attitudes to employment are not new but I suggest that as the boomer cohort ages, ageist attitudes are becoming more entrenched - and I don’t know why.

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The American social theorist Richard Sennett says in The Culture of the New Capitalism, “As experience increases, it loses value … Automation is indifferent to experience. Market forces continue to make it cheaper to buy skills fresh rather than to pay for retraining. These conditions combined give the spectre of uselessness solid substance in the lives of many people today.”

If employers believe that “experience loses its value”, the nation has a major cognitive hurdle to jump. In the normal course of events, experience should be valued because older workers can draw from a deep well of life knowledge. They are the providers of life long learning before the term became fashionable.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Organisational Behaviour called Barriers to Mature Aged Re-Employment: Perceptions About Desirable Work-Related Attributes Held by Job-Seeks and Employers (Ranzijn, Carson & Winefield) it was found that:

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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