​Age: 'It's Just A Number' But Somehow It Matters - Ageism And Mining

As a mining recruitment specialist, I get asked about ageism a lot! 

Ageism, also spelled agism, is stereotyping and/or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic. It includes
  • prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process;
  • discriminatory practices against older people;
  • institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ageism]

Whilst the age groups most at risk of being subject to ageism are older and elderly people (typically 50+), the reality is that any age group can be affected. People looking for jobs are constantly told they're either not experienced enough, or too experienced, which are often euphemisms for 'too young' or 'too old'.

Paul Owens, operations director at the Age Diversity Forum, was spot on when he said ageism is "the biggest area of bias (that exists today) receiving the lowest level of attention". As a society, we unfortunately tend to accept discrimination on the basis of age because there is a perception that it's not offensive or as significant as other forms of discrimination. This is probably why Mark Zuckerberg was not called to account for his 2007 comment that "young people are just smarter". If he'd said instead that people of a certain colour / gender / culture / religion 'are just smarter', he'd have been in all sorts of trouble!

Our societal acceptance of age-related bias is particularly true in the workplace. According to the Australian Aged Care Guide for example:
  • Over 50% of Australian workplaces acknowledge that they do set age limits when interviewing people for positions within their organisation – most commonly 50 years of age. Another source​ says that studies indicate approximately a third of companies don't want to take on mature workers.
  • Ageism can significantly impact people emotionally, physically, and financially, and can spill over into many other facets of their lives
  • It can also be present in the older generations themselves courtesy of their own long held internalised beliefs about ageism, developed from a life time of exposure to stereotyping and age bias

People are also advised not to include information in their resume that 'dates' them and could potentially reduce their chances of landing an interview. This includes when they got their tertiary qualifications, their earliest work history and so on. All these types of 'tricks and tips' are an accepted part of the job application process, particularly for those with a few decades of work experience under their belt. They also clearly demonstrate how entrenched ageism is.

The Benevolent Society notes that ageism typically shows up in 3 forms:
  • Institutional by way of official policies and procedures that stereotype people based on their age
  • Behavioural through discrimination against people because of their age
  • Emotional due to intrinsic prejudices and attitudes against people of certain ages

Often it's done unconsciously – if you've ever randomly thought "Oh so and so can't possibly do that / won't understand because they're 'too old' or 'too young'" that's ageism at work! Ageism can unintentionally 'fester' within the family unit, and amongst friends. In the workplace, it can halt career progression for those considered not an 'ideal age for the job', and stop older employees in particular moving beyond what they've already achieved. It can also contribute to 'elder abuse' – the emotional, psychological, physical, financial and even sexual abuse of elderly people because of their age.

'Elderspeak' is another common form of ageism. It presumes that because someone is older their hearing is impaired so one needs to speak loudly and slowly to them, preferably using words of 2 syllables or less to cater for their declining mental aptitude. Alternatively, you can use a type of condescending manner that presupposes total ignorance of the topic. This is particularly useful for topics like technology, which someone of his or her generation can't possibly be expected to understand.

The medical community is also guilty of ageism. Some treatable illnesses and diseases for example are dismissed as 'conditions' of old age and may go undetected, untreated or even get over treated. In times of population health crises ie lack of sufficient treatment facilities / drugs etc, younger people 'with their lives still ahead of them' are often given preferential treatment ahead of 'old people at the end of their lives'. This was demonstrated very clearly by medical responses to Covid-19 in many countries as their health systems were overrun. Elderly people with chronic diseases are usually not eligible to participate in clinical trials to keep the trials focussed on the 'general' population. Healthcare providers also often stereotype older people with respect to health and fitness.

There is also a tendency to treat the accepted and perfectly normal effects of aging as diseases to be prevented, or reversed. The anti-aging skincare industry is a prime example of this. All this stereotyping plays into our perception that 'young' people by definition are smarter, healthier, and more capable than older folk!

Ageism is not restricted to developed countries; it's a global issue.

Research​ done on the Indonesian job market for instance found that "The most recurrent type of discrimination which occurs in job advertisements is based on age (66.27%), followed by gender (38.76%), and physical appearances (18.42%)."  Interestingly, the highest rate of ageism (77.56%) was found to occur in plant and machine operators and assemblers jobs. Given that the legally employable age range in Indonesia is 15 – 65, any age discrimination within this range is illegal. That doesn't seem to stop it though.

Pervading stereotype arguments for existing ageism policies against older people in the workplace include:
  • The 'fair innings' reasoning – they've already had the chance to develop their careers so need to stand aside and let younger people have the jobs
  • It makes better business sense to promote younger employees because they're potentially going to be around longer
  • It's more cost effective long term to put expensive investments ie training into younger employees
  • Young people are easier to train because older people have declining mental aptitude
  • Young people understand and adapt more easily to new technologies so are easier to train
  • Employing young people helps keep wage expenses down – they generally don't have to be paid as much as older, more experienced employees
  • Having older people on the payroll involves more pension and health benefits expenses
  • Older people are not as flexible – they're set in their ways and don't readily accept changes
  • Older people are often overly cautious
  • Young people are more creative

Furthermore, the older worker is often stereotyped as being:
  • Out of touch with modern society and lifestyles
  • Eccentric, grouchy, uncooperative, nosey
  • Too conservative
  • Mentally inept
  • Physically less capable – slower, more injury prone, not as fit
  • More likely to take sickies (absenteeism)
  • Less attractive
  • Overly sentimental
  • Just 'marking time' until they can retire
  • Expectant of a higher salary

However, young people are also stereotyped:
  • They don't know what work is
  • They don't know how to work
  • They're not easy to manage in the workplace
  • They find it hard to commit
  • They expect to be rewarded in some way simply for going to work

Ageism is also more common in some industries, notably physical occupations like labourers, trades people and the like.

Does ageism exist in the mining industry?

Unfortunately it does, which is somewhat problematic on several fronts.

In many developed countries, the population is aging and companies are finding it harder to replace older employees as they retire. Indeed, much has been written about the great 'brain drain' as more and more of the world's baby boomers approach, or have already reached, retirement age.

Statistically the percentage of older people still in the workforce has doubled over the past 2 decades in some countries, whilst the percentage of people over 70 still working has also increased. It's the result of not enough 'young talent' coming up through the ranks to replace them, and the increasingly 'expensive luxury' of comfortable retirement forcing people to work longer.

These statistics are not particularly good news for companies with policies that discriminate against older employees. Young people with the desired skills and experience are increasingly in short supply. If combined with a hiring policy that preferentially targets younger applicants the situation becomes particularly sticky for industries (like mining) that find it hard to compete against 'more exciting' ie high tech, career choices for young people.
Mining's Covid-19 Exclusionary Health Policies – Protecting The 'Most Vulnerable' Or Inadvertently Encouraging Ageism?

According to the World Health Organisation "The COVID-19 virus infects people of all ages. However, evidence to date suggests that two groups of people are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 disease. These are older people; and those with underlying medical conditions." [https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200311-sitrep-51-covid-19.pdf]

Whilst no one would argue that protecting the most vulnerable within our communities from Covid-19 is not a good (and necessary) thing, it is nevertheless contributing to ageism! BHP found this out recently when the company's (pretty standard for the industry) Covid-19 policy for its mineworkers came under fire from the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in Australia. The policy states that employees (direct or contractors) who work on any of the company's mines and who are:
  • Over 65 years of age
  • Over 60 years of age with a pre-existing health condition
  • Over 50 years of age and identify as indigenous
  • Any age and identify as indigenous and have a health condition
must stay home.

All BHP employees in positions who could work from home so were required to do so at the start of the pandemic. However, because Australia's mining industry was deemed 'essential' and thus permitted to remain operational even during the height of that country's lockdowns, it was almost business as usual for many employees who worked directly on mine sites. In BHP's case though, mineworkers who fell into any of the above categories were stood down. A number of direct BHP employees and workers hired through labour hire companies were affected.
Whilst BHP's own employees were put on paid leave for the duration of their stand-down, those contracted through labour hire companies were not as fortunate. They were eligible for payments from a $6,000,000 fund BHP set up to help these companies transition through the initial phases of the pandemic health restrictions. However, the hire companies were expected to start supporting these employees themselves from July 1st. At least one of them didn't, leaving their 'excluded' employees caught in limbo without pay for several months until pandemic regulations on mine sites eased and high risk employees were able to safely return to work.

The CFMEU says the policy, whilst obviously implemented with good intentions and with the health of employees in mind, is nonetheless discriminatory because it targets employees based on age, ethnicity and disabilities. Given that there are many, many companies globally with similar Covid-19 policies, it will be interesting to see how much fall out there is from the inadvertent and perhaps unavoidable ageism contained in such policies.

What mining companies can do to avoid ageism:
  • Walk the talk – many if not most countries have anti-discriminatory workplace laws that cover all types of discrimination, and companies in these countries are required to have similarly anti-discriminatory, equal opportunity workplace policies in place. Make sure the entire company from the top down clearly understands that these policies aren't just about preventing gender, race, religious, disability and sexual discrimination but also include age related bias, and that every employee has a responsibility to uphold them.
  • Take advantage of the years of job experience and corporate knowledge bound up in older employees by getting them to act as mentors for younger / new employees
  • Don't make stereotypical assumptions about older employees ie that they're untrainable, technologically illiterate, just marking time until they can retire etc.
  • Ensure older workers receive exactly the same opportunities, treatment and benefits as their younger colleagues (ie access to training, consideration for jobs, participation in social events).
  • Provide flexible working arrangements. These should be available to all employees regardless of age, otherwise it's just another ageism-based policy.

Older employees are valuable. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that a wise employer recognises and values. In some sectors they're becoming almost irreplaceable! Regrettably mining is one of them.

As the Cecelia Ahern quote goes: "Age is just a number, not a state of mind or a reason for any type of particular behaviour."
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