The grey ceiling
Older workers are stifling the progress of their younger colleagues

I first became aware of the “grey ceiling” when I was working as a researcher at one of Australia’s more self-important universities. At our faculty’s weekly seminars, the white-haired professors would saunter in and sit around a stately boardroom table. I would study these white-haired sages under my eyelids and marvel at their implacable sense of entitlement. Each had a spacious office made cramped by faded books and years-old undergraduate essays. All were as embedded in the place as the electrical wires and water pipes.

We sessional lecturers and tutors would file in behind them and perch on plastic chairs around the edges of the room – a truly accurate visual metaphor for our tenuous status. We camped out two and three to a room in bare offices, our contracts offering 15 weeks’ work and never the promise of any more. They paid us by the hour for lectures and by the word for marking; it was like factory piecework, but for people with PhDs.

In the three years I worked there, just five full-time, permanent roles opened up in the academic ranks. Our tenured colleagues in their late 30s and 40s feverishly pumped out papers and pimped themselves out for grants in the hope of ascending the academic pay scale – mostly to no avail. And all the while the professors sat on in their named chairs; going nowhere and ensuring no-one under them could either.

This isn’t a phenomenon unique to my former university. Australians are working longer today than ever before. Many of them have to: the global financial crisis erased a sizeable chunk of the wealth they’d planned to retire with.

In 1992, fewer than one in 10 of those in the workforce were over 55; today around one in six workers are. Having so many aged employees sticking around for so long is something genuinely new in the world of work. What’s more, it’s a trend that is set to accelerate, with the 2015 Intergenerational Report predicting the participation rate for people in their mid- to late 60s will rise from less than 20% today to more than 50% by 2055. That’s going to create much more competition for tomorrow’s senior jobs.

While there’s lots of good reasons to keep older people in the workforce, having more people working into their 60s and beyond also comes at a very real cost to younger Australians. In earlier years, our parents’ generation moved steadily through pay rises and promotions as people filed out of work at 55 and freed up the ranks above them. But having got old themselves, they’re not giving up those great careers. That leaves me and my peers butting up against a grey ceiling that compresses our potential and frustrates our ambitions. Worse, it may well see us earning less throughout key periods of our working lives.

Pick a field – any field – and it’s likely you’ll find the age of its most senior people has risen compared with 20 or 30 years ago. The Australian public service? The average age of departmental secretaries for the eight most significant government departments has trended up by five years since 1990 alone – from 53 to 58. Big business? Taking a sample of Australia’s biggest firms shows that their CEOs are, on average, eight years older now than 25 years ago. Even Australia’s political decision-makers are getting older. In 1983, Bob Hawke staffed his first ministry with spry types like John Dawkins (36), Paul Keating (39) and Susan Ryan (41). The average age around his cabinet table was 47. Twenty years later, the youngest members of Tony Abbott’s first cabinet were 43-year-olds Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann.

Unfortunately for any 30-something seeking promotion, the data shows this age lag isn’t confined to the top talent. For example, data from the Australian Public Service shows people over 50 have dramatically expanded their share of mid-to-senior level roles over the past 15 years. The number of people working at these levels in their 30s and 40s has gone backwards by almost exactly the same proportion.

So the career gains for older workers are being stripped from younger ones. Unless you believe Australians under 40 have become radically less promotable in the past 15 years (more on that in a minute), this should strike you as unfair.

Most obviously, it hampers our careers because it shuts off opportunities for us to get promoted. If a couple of those professors at my old uni had shuffled off to be insufferable elsewhere, the middle-aged academics below them could have risen to take their place. This, in turn, would have freed up jobs all the way down the hall to those sparse offices where my temp colleagues and I clustered. But by staying put, those scholars stopped us all in our tracks.

Now, past generations worked hard to get to the top, and good on them. But here’s the difference. Until fairly recently the workforce was like an escalator – lifting people steadily from their ground-floor jobs to the upper career echelons.

Former Treasury Secretary Chris Higgins was 46 when he was put in charge of the country’s coin in 1989. Financier David Murray was running the Commonwealth Bank before his 44th birthday in 1992. The colourful journalist Col Allan was just 40 when he was made editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1993. Climbing so high by that kind of age is almost unheard of for today’s workers, as the escalator increasingly flattens out to a treadmill.

Frustrated ambitions aside, a scarcity of promotions also means more years working for crappier pay and conditions. Average incomes for people in their 20s have grown at less than half the rate of that for people in their mid-fifties since 1990. They’ve also grown 16% more slowly for people in their early and middle 30s. That’s likely to be because fewer of the workers in this bracket have moved from entry-level to better-paid roles than were able to do so in the recent past.

Even a few years’ delay can have big financial consequences. For instance, a worker who spends an entire decade earning $60,000 will make $50,000 less in that time than one who gets a pay rise to $70,000 after five years. That difference represents a good chunk of what you need for the deposit on a median-priced house these days.

Finally, there’s the perception problem. As the number of sexagenarians in the senior grades grows, age is increasingly viewed as a prerequisite for holding those roles. When everyone around the boardroom table is pushing 70, someone in their 40s starts to seem underqualified and immature (at least to those fogies choosing another for their ranks).

I know what the response will be to all this. The problem isn’t the jobs pipeline – it’s today’s young workers. We’re overly skittish and sensitive. We’re not prepared to stay put in one job for more than a year or two. Our expectations are too high and our taste for hard work too low.

It’s the kind of stirring stuff you read in columns and hear on talkback all the time, but there’s one small hitch: this is all little more than feelpinion that has assumed the status of fact.

For a start, let’s knock on the head this idea of my generation being unusually restless job-hoppers. At the moment, about a quarter of people between 20 and 34 change jobs in any given year. That sounds like a lot, and it’s certainly higher than the one in eight 50-somethings who do so. But when you drill down into the data, it turns out that this churn rate is actually lower than in the past. The local data on this goes back as far as 1993; then, one in three people under 24 had changed jobs in the past year. The proportion of those doing so in their late 20s and early 30s was almost exactly the same as today.

People under 30 stay with each employer for a relatively brief 20 months – that has consistently been so since my parents entered the workforce in the late 1970s. The real shift in work habits these past few years has been among older Australians. Where people over 45 once averaged almost 10 years in a single job, today this is down to a bit more than six and a half years. Across the workforce as a whole, the average Australian employee now stays three years and four months before moving on to fresh fields. In other words, if employers are concerned about shortening job tenures, it isn’t us they should be dissing.

When it comes to attitudes and behaviours at work, proper peer-reviewed research gives cause to doubt whether there’s anything more than daylight between workers at different ages.

Despite the lack of evidence, the perception that my generation don’t make good workers is widespread, and it is damaging. It provides a convenient excuse for not promoting younger Australians into more senior roles. What’s more, it lets older workers feel justified in keeping these to themselves, and paints our inability to get ahead as purely a product of our own failings.

It’s a cosy little cycle of blame and post-facto justification older generations are perpetuating. It’s time we started calling them on it.

This is an edited extract from Generation Less: How Australia is cheating the young by Jennifer Rayner, published by Redback Quarterly. Out now. 

Jennifer Rayner
Jennifer Rayner has worked as a federal political adviser, an international youth ambassador in Indonesia and a private sector consultant, and holds a PhD from the Australian National University.

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