Speaking with Nest Egg, Justine Irving, researcher with the University of South Australia, said the results were shocking.
According to the government-funded study, 28 per cent of those over 45 years who were surveyed have experienced “less favourable treatment” at work, or had difficulty finding work due to their age and assumptions people had made based on that.
The likelihood of being discriminated against also increases with age, with those aged 49 and under more likely to find it hard to line up a job interview, while those over 50 more likely to report “negative assumptions about their skills, learning ability or cognition based on age”.
Ms Irving said the figures around ageism were the most surprising element that the report, researched in partnership with the Australian National University, RMIT, Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Women in Super unveiled.
She said: “That was a shock because that was never the focus of our work and to see that almost a third of the group starting from 45 years of age had experience of some form of age discrimination.
“Once we had a look further there's evidence of that in other sources [and] other research but that — to us — was a surprise that that it started so young.”
Men were more likely to report having experienced discrimination (30 per cent) than women (27 per cent).
Interestingly, the report also revealed that men were more likely to flag discrimination due to “assumptions about their physical abilities or working pace” and women were more likely to flag working in an organisation that undervalues older workers as a group as being discriminatory.
The research also highlighted “subtle pressure” from both colleagues and management for older workers to “make room for the younger generation”, regardless of older workers’ capabilities or preferences.
The problem with ageism in the workforce is that it can inform retirement decisions, Ms Irving continued, noting that it can have a “significant impact” on workers’ ability to retire with “sufficient funds”.
She explained: “A lot of people in the survey said that they retired because they could afford to but then when we actually spoke to them and we explored that further, that wasn't actually the case.
“There was more like a few steps, a few triggers [which] would happen before they actually thought about retirement and often it was due to the work itself.”
This could include issues within the organisation in which they were employed, the organisational structure, work practices they didn’t agree with or a lack of flexibility around working hours or part-time needs.
“There were actually issues with the work or the organisation rather than a desire to stop working completely and that in itself is really interesting because that's something that we can address.”
However, Ms Irving also noted that workers have an individual responsibility to maintain their physical and mental health and to ensure that their skills remain relevant, or that they have the ability to adapt.
She said: “It's also not just organisations and government and policy-makers and recruiters, it's also our individual responsibility to take steps.”
The ability to adapt and retrain is crucial so that workers don’t “work ourselves into the ground unnecessarily”, she continued, arguing: “There's certainly individual responsibility in making sure that we remain healthy and productive as we get older.”
The researchers called on organisations to consider employee diversity, including age distribution and to perform audits of human resource practices that may be subjected to unconscious or conscious age-related biases.
Additionally, the researchers said organisations should address “generalised attitudes toward older workers, particularly perceptions of risk and additional ‘cost’ they may bring to an organisation” and ensure “equity of training and promotion opportunities for all staff regardless of age”.