Back to the future: the rise of mature age interns

Peter Brady was 68 when he decided to start the transition to retirement. His plan was to switch from full-time work to casual contracts so he’d have more time to spend with his family and to study.

However, the former CEO of Autism ACT soon hit a snag: age discrimination.

“I found if I submitted my full CV, I wouldn't get an interview," he said.

"If I truncated my experience and qualifications I'd get one, but then I'd show up at the interview and be competing against all these Gen Ys. I’ve got no doubt there was discrimination going on.” 

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Willing to Work report of 2016 found age-related bias is widespread - and particularly rife in employment.

“Remarkably, the report found a high proportion of hiring managers who were taking age into account were aged over 40 themselves," a manager at aged care provider IRT Foundation, Toby Dawson, said.

"People are being discriminated against by people of that exact same age cohort.” 

While age discrimination has a slew of negative impacts, including those on mental health, families and financial independence, it was also regrettable from a broader economic perspective.

A survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found an increase of just five per cent in the paid employment of Australians aged over 55 would have a $48 billion impact on the economy each year.

With the number of Australians aged 65 and over projected to double by 2055, there will be an increased demand for aged-care services and additional strain on the welfare system if greater labour force participation was not achieved.

While the Willing to Work report urged the government to create a national action plan to address employment discrimination and to launch public education campaigns to dispel negative stereotypes about older workers, some have started taking matters into their own hands.

Mr Brady said he was delighted to be offered a reverse internship by IRT’s Toby Dawson, who at the time was 31. The idea came from the movie The Intern, starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, in which a 70-year-old widower interns at a fashion company run by a CEO half his age.

“It just so happened The Intern had come out and we’d both seen it. We talked about it at the interview and decided that’s what we’d do,” Mr Brady said.

“My role was to share some of the tricks of the trade and where I had skinned my knees, so to speak. At the same time, Toby was managing transitioning me to a more junior role - he was coaching me in how to do it again.”

Mr Brady didn’t want to stop working completely and working 40 hours a month would allow him to put the money he’d made from selling an investment property into his super fund. However, he understood if he wanted to work fewer hours, he would need to take on a more junior role.

“When you go for those senior roles, they’ll start off saying 20 hours a week is fine but within a matter of weeks it becomes, 'Can you give us another day?' Or the board is calling you up at all hours. It's difficult to be a part time CEO or manager, because crises inevitably come up.”

The role he was offered as a project coordinator at IRT allowed Mr Brady to brush up his social media skills and to learn how to use newer Microsoft Office applications; tasks he previously delegated.

He said the first year of the 18-month internship was challenging, partly because it required a change of mindset.

“When you're no longer the manager and not directing people any more, it’s emotionally a bit draining," he said.

"You see people walk past you to go to a consultant for advice and you think, ‘Hang on a second. I used to do that, I could help you there.’ It’s about getting over that.”

But he said the experience was invaluable because he has since moved to work for Wollongong City Council where he is employed on a casual basis.

It was also a win for Mr Dawson, who said working with Mr Brady fast-tracked his own learning and development.

“This was both in terms of industry knowledge, because he had an enormous amount of experience, as well as helping develop my soft skills around being a manager and leader," he said. "It was a really enriching experience.”

Younger now

Companies such as Barclays Bank in the UK and Goldman Sachs and PricewaterhouseCoopers in the US have launched formal apprenticeships targeting older workers, however there were few such initiatives in Australia.

The ASIA study found more than 40 per cent of Baby Boomers felt stuck in a rut because a career change felt unlikely due to their age. Close to half spent more than six months finding a job in a new field, with one in six taking five years or more.

The Willing to Work report identified a “damaging gap in access to skills training and retraining for workers approaching mid-life”. This was particularly so in industries which were labour-intensive or in decline, such as manufacturing.

But it was also a reason enterprising older workers were turning to internships as a way of rebooting their careers.

This story was originally published by bluenotes, ANZ’s newsroom for insights, opinion, research and news about the economy, financial services, investment and society, from within ANZ and outside. 

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