One of the keys to living well as we age is to keep working, according to Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty - the co-director of the ScienCentre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at the University of New South Wales.
Professor Brodaty has recently studied healthy centenarians to see what factors they had in common to allow them to live their best lives. He found that many were non-smokers, who were well educated and were able to keep their blood pressure under control. “I also think working for longer and delaying retirement seems to help,” he recently commented.
That’s all very well. But unless you have your own business, actually remaining employed past retirement age is no mean feat. Older workers on healthy salaries are often the first to be targeted for retrenchment in tough times. Their wisdom and knowledge is apparently no match for younger, cheaper, more vibrant workers.
And if you thought remaining in employment is hard, actually finding a new job as an older worker when you’re the wrong side of 50, is equally challenging.
Mature Employees Are A Minority Group
In April 2021, approximately 619,000 older Australians (aged 65 and over) were employed in the labour force.
Of these older workers, 61% were men and 39% were women, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). However, these numbers are are rising, presumably because we’re living longer with a better quality of life.
The workplace participation rate has almost doubled in the last 20 years, according to the ABS.
Heading Back To The Office Is Just Like Starting All Over Again
I’m an older worker and I love being attached to a creative industry but re-entering the workforce was a confronting experience on so many different levels.
I had spent 18 years writing a newspaper column and had aged in place without necessarily acknowledging the passing of time.
After that role ended, I went `on sabbatical’ travelling for a couple of years and I completed various writing projects. Unfortunately, I also developed a love affair with the contents of my fridge and when I wasn’t constantly grazing, I was scouring auction sites for antiques. (I’m a very competitive bidder, to my detriment). Soon my outgoings were far greater than my incomings. It was time to head back to the office.
The Pain Of Rejection
Armed with my experience and celebrity contacts, I thought it would be easy to find a job, but I was wrong. I rarely scored an interview, as I was viewed as too expensive and too old. How could someone of my advanced years write about millennials?
Perhaps they were right.
Eventually I found a job as a copywriter in a small creative studio with you guessed it, millennials. This didn’t worry me. On the inside, at least, I didn’t feel very different than I had when I was in my 30s myself (that’s ageing for you). But I soon discovered that I had morphed into that annoying older woman in the office - I was an untouchable.
A couple of colleagues took an instant dislike to me including an art director, who coolly looked me up and down on day one like a mean girl in the playground.
``Why don’t you just leave?” she said
This was on week two. In fact, the only time she briefly warmed to me was when she wanted me to score her a job as a radio announcer, all without an audition tape. When that didn’t happen, it was back to glaring at me at 20 paces.
The place was cliquey. Everyone took their breaks together but when I tried to join them they would stop talking. I developed a walking routine instead.
A senior manager just couldn’t abide me. He would shrink away whenever I approached his desk as though my wrinkles were some kind of communicable disease like Covid. Then there was the big freeze when he stopped speaking to me for well over a month or assigning me any work. But I’m nothing if not resourceful, so I found some projects for myself.
Falling Head Over Heels
I tripped one day with the incident caught on a security camera and an action replay was then viewed by several of the men. Apparently it was all about work safe practices and not voyeurism. But I made a joke of it by pretending that I had been distracted by a handsome man walking past. You see, anything was better than appearing to be old and frail.
Ageism Is Real
Around 20% of older Australians, aged 65 and over have experienced ageism in their jobs, according to a 2015’ National Prevalence Survey of Age Discrimination In The Workplace Study. Even 27% of Australians over 50, reported feeling they had been unfairly treated because of their age.
We All Need To Be Needed
But gradually things turned around for me. I started mentoring a young copywriter and she in turn helped me with any computer glitches. We started going for our breaks together and eventually we formed a warm friendship.
This was a game changer as I now felt valued and my confidence started to return, as I was making a meaningful contribution again. Soon my new friend was published in the mainstream media, and I felt a real sense of pride.
That’s when I discovered that sharing my knowledge to help others was one way of helping myself to feel more comfortable in the office. Taking an interest in other people and being ready to help them is the ultimate feel-good exercise.
Returning to work, late in my career has really taught me so much, especially about resilience, humility and grace. It’s about dropping one’s guard and being spontaneous to take on new challenges. It’s also about never allowing age to become a stigma. I absolutely love what I do, and I shouldn’t face discrimination for that.