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Ageism doesn’t just affect the individual; it’s a business cost

By Nick Wilson | |7 minute read

The Goldilocks effect of workplace ageism is impacting workers of all ages.

When a young Sue Parker’s father lost his job, the entire family shared in the bad news.

“It certainly ricochets across everybody,” she said, “he was a senior executive at 47, I was a child. It affected his self-esteem. Men, particularly, have the expectation of them being the breadwinner in families. Their self-esteem is shot.”


After experiencing the devastation of redundancy, Ms Parker, a career strategist, communications expert, and owner of DARE Group, has seen the cycle repeat countless times.

“I’ve seen it time and time again with my own career clients who come to me after they’ve been made redundant. They’re over 50, and they’re struggling to get back into the workforce, and their self-esteem just keeps eroding,” Ms Parker said.

An often-overlooked side of ageism is the way it impacts younger workers.

“It’s like Goldilocks; you’re either too young or too old, which is all ridiculous because, as I’ve said time and time again, age is not a total predictor of competence and value,” she said.

Today, we’re asking what ageism – the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia – looks like, how it can affect not just individuals but the productivity of businesses, and what people should keep in mind.

The costs of ageism

Ageism typically looks different when experienced by people of different ages. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found that it tends to take the following forms:

  • Young adults (18–39) are most likely to experience ageism as being condescended to or ignored.
  • Middle-aged people (40–61) are most likely to experience it through being turned down for a job.
  • Older people (62 and above) are more likely to experience it as being “helped” without being asked.

While certain industries experience greater levels of age discrimination, the phenomenon is ubiquitous, according to Ms Parker.

In 2021, the AHRC found that 63 per cent of survey respondents said they had experienced ageism in the previous five years.

Concerningly, ageism is not restricted to views held about other age groups. Biases can apply within age brackets.

“Older people can be their own worst enemy,” said Ms Parker, “I have seen it time and time again that leaders in organisations who are over, say, 45, discriminate against people of their own age.”

Among the costs to the individual, ageism can impact one’s physical, mental, and cognitive health and wellbeing. It is a major contributor to workplace alienation and can lead to a decreased quality of life.

Further, it can contribute to financial insecurity. While it is generally illegal to base a recruitment decision on the candidate’s age, the AHRC reported that many older Australians are feeling “shut out” of recruitment. Additionally, they receive fewer professional development opportunities and perceive being targeted for redundancy during periods of organisational restructure.

International research relied upon by the AHRC found that older people are more likely to be viewed as “rigid, resistant to learning and to using new technologies, and as less competent and productive than younger employees”.

Research suggests that age is an unreliable predictor of employee value and can distract from the true potential of job candidates.

Age discrimination does not end at the recruitment stage. It is also about how workers are treated on the job.

“You hear time and time again how people are spoken to in derogatory terms, in snide remarks: ‘Oh, you’re an old codger’ or ‘you’re too young to understand,’” said Ms Parker.

That said, the costs of ageism go beyond the individual. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, it can “affect intergenerational solidarity by pitting younger people against older people”.

Similarly, the economic costs are shared at the broader community level. According to research relied upon by the AHRC, an additional 3 per cent in workforce participation by people aged 55 years and older would add $33 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP).

What to avoid

Age discrimination is often less visible than other kinds of discrimination – this extends to the workplace. According to Ms Parker, coming to a solution will require honest, deep accountability.

“Every single person needs to take a really hard look at themselves and ask: am I ageist?” Ms Parker said.

It will require taking stocktaking of our inherent biases, even those which seem harmless or, at first, self-evident, and ask, “is that true? Is it true that everybody over a certain age is X-Y-Z? Is it true that everybody under a certain age is X-Y-Z?”

According to Ms Parker, it is crucial that age discrimination does not become an opportunity for organisations to moral grandstand through hollow, yet substantively unfulfilled, promises and commitments to fighting ageism. This phenomenon has been dubbed “values washing”.

“That mindset needs to change. And all the research and legislation and policy, they aren’t moving the needle,” said Ms Parker.

An AHRC survey found that respondents believed a more positive sense of what ageing really is would have the greatest impact on reducing ageism. In second and third places were better education around the strengths of each age group and greater opportunities for social mixing between age groups, respectively.

“The focus has to be: stop making assumptions based on age and make them based on skills and competencies,” said Ms Parker.

Otherwise, “we can throw away good people [and that is] going to cost our organisations and our wellbeing if we don’t take a more individual look.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Sue Parker, click below:



Ageism, often known as age discrimination, is the act of treating someone unjustly because of their age. In the workplace, this might manifest as a person being passed over for a job or promotion, older workers being denied benefits or early termination of employment.


According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, discrimination occurs when one individual or group of people is regarded less favourably than another because of their origins or certain personality traits. When a regulation or policy is unfairly applied to everyone yet disadvantages some persons due to a shared personal trait, that is also discrimination.


The practice of actively seeking, locating, and employing people for a certain position or career in a corporation is known as recruitment.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.