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Stereotype Threat and Mature Age Workers

Given Australia’s ageing population and growing shortage of skilled workers, the Australian Government has introduced a number of policies and programs over time to increase workforce participation by mature age Australians (aged 50 and over). These include retraining and re-skilling as well as job search support programs.

The most recent announcements include a gradual increase in the qualifying age for the Age Pension for both men and women from 65 to 67 by 2023, abolition of the superannuation guarantee age limit to allow employees aged 70 and over to receive the superannuation guarantee for the first time, and creating a separate statutory office for an Age Discrimination Commissioner. 

While these initiatives are undoubtedly important, it is equally important to understand the psychological factors that may affect mature age workers’ satisfaction with work and ultimately their decision to stop working. One such important factor is stereotype threat, which occurs when an individual believes that they may be the target of demeaning stereotypes. The stereotypes about mature age workers usually focus on negative and inaccurate assumptions, such as they are set in their ways, prone to health problems, only want part-time work or are inept with technology.

This study investigated whether Australian mature age workers experienced stereotype threat, and whether the experience of stereotype threat was associated with more negative workplace attitudes and behaviours. The research revealed two disturbing findings about mature age workers who do experience stereotype threat regarding their age – they have more negative job attitudes, and these are associated with intentions to quit or retire. This suggests that the experience of stereotype threat at work can counteract efforts made to keep older adults in the workplace for longer. 

However, the research showed that while stereotype threat can hinder the success of Australia’s ageing workforce, not all mature age employees are equally vulnerable. Nonetheless, organisations need to understand and combat stereotype threat if they want to keep their mature age talent and help them reach their potential, and to ensure they themselves are not inadvertently reinforcing negative stereotypes.

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