The General Contempt For Experience
'Cruel waste of experience' The Courier-Mail 15/5/2005

On paper the adjective mature, when describing a person, should be complimentary. The dictionary defines this as meaning they are complete, ripe and have achieved full physical, mental and emotional development. They are the complete package. Surely this is a good thing.

But in the world of employment being mature can mean a kind of death. Lose your job and you are unlikely to get another. In the workplace, just when you feel comfortable, adept, capable, you are considered professionally on the downhill slide, old-fashioned, technologically challenged.

How terribly inaccurate, unfair and short-sighted.

It is a frightening revelation that statistically, the Government and working community generally regard any worker over 45 to be mature-aged. This is particularly surprising given that in the modern era, workers who have reached that age have at least as many working years ahead of them as behind.

So dire is the situation of a jobless person over the age of 45 that the Government classifies them to comprise a disadvantaged group.

Department of Employment and Workplace Relations figures from June last year show that of those who collect full-rate unemployment allowances, most over the age of 45 are on the books for more than 12 months.

Part of that problem is perception. The notion that older people are sticks in the mud, have poor IT skills and are boat rockers is set firm in our society. Companies view them as unlikely to hang around because retirement age is beckoning. Mature-age employees are less likely to have money spent on their training or skills advancements.

The reality is that few people have a job for life any more. Even the young do not stay in jobs for too long. Few people dream of complete retirement but look forward to earning the right to a balance of work and play and the time to live healthily. A mix of a little satisfying work and healing leisure is not too much to ask after paying taxes and contributing to society for several decades, surely.

There are people out there ready to work wonders. Former corporate high-flyer Mal Walker started the nattily named GreyHair Alchemy, a company that places senior executives in interim management positions. These are men and women who have grey hair in experience, if not in fact.

Given that they have been so senior, they also are mostly getting towards being senior in years (over 45), but are keen to work hard, get their hands dirty with mergers and acquisitions and as stop-gaps in management roles. They want to help the big end of town, not take it over.

But despite a successful track record of placing compatriots in the corporate world, Walker laments that GreyHair has done zilch business in the public sector.

Last week, Federal Employment Minister Kevin Andrews attacked the corporate sector for failing to recruit mature-age workers, telling them the skills crisis could be averted if employers look to older people to fill positions.

Days later, the Federal Government announced that the mature-aged jobless would be forced to do work-for-the-dole programs for the first time.

If the Government is so concerned about the older jobless, and mature-aged workers generally, it should lead by example and employ more properly qualified people who are over the age of 45.

The State Government is quick to point out that it is pouring money into addressing the problem, mostly through its Break the Unemployment Cycle programs and Experience Pays.

The Federal Government always protests that it has Job Network, but you do not have to dig far to find that those agencies do not look after everyone. Some say as many as 1.2 million jobless people want to work but are not reflected in the figures. If a person is not in the welfare system, they seem to be invisible when the statistics collector comes around, but it doesn't mean they are not seeking work.

We need to have mature-aged people in the workforce now, more than ever. Increased longevity, declining birth rates and a shrinking pool of young jobseekers mean people in the workforce aged 45 years and over must become an important focus for government and industry.

In the next 40 years, one in four Australians will be aged over 65. Employers will have little choice but to set aside their prejudices and take on more mature-aged workers, because they will form the deepest end of the job-ready pool.

Professor Helen Bartlett, director at the University of Queensland's Australasian Centre on Ageing, believes that time will heal this social sore and that within a generation, mature-aged jobseekers will take their proper place in the general statistics, instead of creating their own special category.

While this does not offer much heart to today's jobseekers, it should bolster the hopes of those who may find themselves in their place in the future.