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Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination

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Published by Helen Westwood

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Published by: Helen Westwood on Sep 03, 2012
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The Hon. HELEN WESTWOOD [9.40 p.m.]: Tonight I speak on ageism, or age discrimination. I applaud the fabulous work that the Hon. Susan Ryan, AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner, is undertaking in this area. The term "ageism" was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors. Butler defined "ageism" as a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people. There is a more specific sub-category called "jeunism", which is defined as the tendency to prefer younger people to older people. I will speak more about that later. Discrimination has been a feature of Australian society throughout its post-colonial history. The nature and subjects of discrimination and discriminatory acts have changed over time, as has our understanding of the harmful effects of discrimination on individuals, groups and society as a whole. Perhaps from the time Australia supported the establishment of the United Nations, Australia has continually become less tolerant of discrimination and has acted to bring an end to discrimination in all its forms. The first Australian anti-discrimination legislation was enacted just 45 years ago. However, as early as 1948 Australia was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets down in article 1 that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." That right to freedom and equality does not change as we grow older. Older men and women have the same rights as everyone else. Over the years since then, Australia has ratified a wide range of international human rights instruments which contain important provisions relevant to the provision of services to older people. There is increasing global support now for a convention specifically focused on the rights of older people. It is good to see that the Australian Government is taking part in those discussions. In the context of these global discussions I applaud the Federal Labor Government for the creation last year of the full-time office of the Age Discrimination Commissioner and particularly the appointment of the Hon. Susan Ryan, AO. It is intended to be a further step in ensuring active attention is given to the previously almost neglected area of age discrimination. I note a particular focus of the Age Discrimination Commissioner is on the barriers for mature age workers. Our modern society obsessively promotes the ideal of youth as part of a wider society, including media, which actively promotes an obsession with appearance and with being "vital and young". I believe there is an element of a deeply held fear and a state of denial about the biological fact that we are all ageing.

I recently observed ageism in a local government preselection when a serving councillor was targeted by her colleagues because she is in her sixties. She was branded "too old and too sick" to serve as a councillor. Ageism should have no place in an election or in a preselection campaign. We would not accept or tolerate candidates being discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, gender or religion; therefore we should not accept candidates being discriminated against on the basis of their age. It was this discrimination against an older woman that raised my interest in ageism. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it is a well documented fact that Australians are living 25 years longer than they did a century ago. The number of Australians aged 85 and over is projected to increase from 0.4 million in 2010 to 1.8 million by 2050. When we analyse these statistics we can see the benefits of the work done by the Age Discrimination Commissioner in bringing ageism into the open. She has produced a paper called "Age Discrimination—Exposing the Hidden Barrier for Mature Aged Workers", which is a study on unlawful age discrimination against mature age workers within the workplace. The study clearly states that ageism is a form of discrimination "that appears to sit quietly—it can go unnoticed and seems accepted". This paper aims to expose it. Historically, age prejudice in the workforce has pushed and continues to push millions of Australians out of paid work long before they can afford it. I also add that the nation cannot afford it. With the eligibility for the age pension moving from 65 to 67 years, we cannot sustain labour market practices that see people facing permanent unemployment in their fifties—a time when they are likely to live a relatively active life for another 30 years or more. Attitudes need to change. Poverty among people in these circumstances is growing and there are alarming increases in homelessness, particularly among older women, as a direct result. If workers aged over 45 are able to work long enough to retire with security and dignity, their need to call on government services will be less and their capacity to make the right choices for themselves will be greater. The best protection against poverty and homelessness is to have gainful employment. Our national economy cannot prosper if we discard skilled capable older workers.

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