At dinner with friends a few weeks ago the conversation was meandering nicely, from sport to the obligatory weather discussion, some light and breezy comments about renovations, a recent puppy-sitting experience.   All very harmless.  Until we moved into the Career Conversation.  Now this is a bit of a no-go zone for me right now because having returned home jobless after seven years working abroad it’s hard for me to articulate what it is I’m doing.  Or even what I plan to do because I haven’t quite decided.  So I prepare to deftly deflect from my Professional Pause.

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What I wasn’t expecting in the Career Conversation was a debate about age.  Now I’m no spring chicken.  With one child through uni and a three-decade career  I realise people are curious about my age.   A while back, a young member of my London team discovered we’d gone to the same Sydney school.  Oh when did you leave she asked.  I graduated in 1982 I said, then watched her face fall as she struggled to find the right words. Let me guess I volunteered – that’s when you started school?  Um actually she stammered, that’s the year I was born!  It happens.  And if I’m honest with myself, I know there’s just that fleeting judgement that I may be ever so slightly, well, past it.

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So it was interesting to discover (according to my 50-something-year old dinner companion), advancing age in the workforce in Australia is now a Big Issue. Maybe it always has been and I’ve been blissfully unaware. Having just passed that special milestone, I can honestly say I’ve never considered I might be a little less attractive to a potential client or employer due to my age.

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But that wasn’t the shock.  My emotionally healthy, talented and not at all wrinkly friend then went on to tell me she has started to fudge her age!   What??  You’re kidding me I said. Nope she countered, the execs are all younger than me, the CEO is under 40! Digital is a young industry, she tells me she’s the oldest in her business by at least 10 years.  So what I say. You’re experienced, clever, composed – you’ve been there done that and know how to avoid the costly mistakes.  Doesn’t mean a thing she said.  So she pretends she’s in her 40s.

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This confession shocked and saddened me.  Especially coming from a woman who battled the bully blokes of broadcast media in the 80s and has proved time and again her value and smarts – despite being female!  But gender discrimination is a little different to age discrimination.  For one thing you are what you are – some women may believe that behaving like men will stand them in better stead for that promotion or key project, the bigger pay rise or the corner office.  But as far as I know, most of us didn’t cross-dress to get the part.  If you’re a woman you’re a woman, the sexism was and is real but we’ve seen much progress to level the playing field.

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With an early career in broadcast journalism I am depressingly familiar with the debate over ageing TV news presenters and how it differs by gender. The behind closed doors job description probably goes something like this:

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Woman in her 20s to 30s, slim, perfect hair, nice voice, credible.  In that order.  Man with nice voice, credible.  Full stop.  The fact the men are typically older, often balding, not necessarily good looking or slim seems acceptable. And so it should be – if they can read auto cue and ask intelligent interview questions with gravitas, that ticks the boxes for a newsreader.  Hair colour and style, fashion and body type and most certainly age should be irrelevant.

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It’s much the same in acting – just ask Helen Mirren – one of the sassiest and most talented people of any age, race or gender to grace our screens. She knows the reality of Hollywood ageism and calls it ‘fucking outrageous’.   She laments the ‘geriatric James Bond’ who can be one hundred years old in the shade but his love interest is invariably very young (and very gorgeous).

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Actress Rebel Wilson caused a stir for fudging her age and many entertainment commentators were outraged.  How dare she. Others countered that entertainment is all about illusion – whether it’s age, number of wrinkles, birth name, sexual preference it’s far from rare that a high profile personality has had some kind of ‘work’ done to help their employment.  Whatever Rebel’s reasons to fudge her age, it’s probably fair to assume she felt it helped her land the gig.  But does it help fight the battle to banish ageism?

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According to a recent report on age discrimination, the first of its kind in this country, one in four Australians aged 50 years and over reveal they’d experienced some kind of unfair treatment related to their age in the past two years.  Being told you are too old to learn new skills, too slow to keep up with younger colleagues or too expensive to re-train has devastating social effects on those impacted.  But it’s also a serious economic problem as workers in their 50s may stop looking for work, stop earning and therefore spending money, stop contributing their taxes, they may begin living on welfare or accessing their superannuation earlier than planned.

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It’s also worth pointing out that I also know blokes who fear age discrimination.   A former colleague in his mid 50s with impeccable journalistic skills and has worked in a range of exec level roles for large and very well known organisations left an excellent international role after just a few months because another role came up and it ‘at my age, could very well be my last chance’.  As it turns out it wasn’t his last chance – the new role didn’t last but he was  snapped up quickly by a worthy editorial body and his career continues to flourish.

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But if it is true that ageism is a growing problem in professional Australia, more fool the recruiters and decision makers responsible.  And for the younger managers out there by-passing talent on the basis of age, shame on you.  Just wait until you hit your 50s.