14 February 2023

Take a lesson from the Grammys, there's no room for ageism in the public service

| Chris Johnson
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BOnnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt, the “unknown blues singer” who beat Taylor Swift. Photo: Wikipedia.

Just over a week ago, the Grammy Awards were held in Los Angeles before a packed venue of mostly musicians and broadcast to a worldwide audience.

What has this got to do with the public service in Australia? Nothing at all, except …

The winner of the Song of the Year gong was Bonnie Raitt for her powerful and beautiful composition Just Like That, which gives an emotional twist on the far-reaching impacts of organ donation.

Raitt, already a 10-time Grammy winner before this year’s event, is 73 years old and has been recording and performing great music since the 1970s.

Her big win last week beat megastars Adele, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Harry Styles and others to take out the coveted prize.

In a world of cynicism and commercialism, it is very easy to disregard the Grammys.

Many musicians (even winning ones) have little time for what they see as a big-corporation hijacking their industry.

But if ever a song was worthy of a top gong, this one from Raitt is.

Besides its superior musicality and sublime performance, Just Like That packs a punch and delivers a cut-through message.

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But here’s where it gets interesting – and where we might be able to make some comparisons with the public service.

Immediately after receiving the award, the Twitterverse came alive with fans of the younger set – those who had lost out to Raitt in that particular category – expressing disbelief that an ageing, ‘unknown’ artist could take out such an award.

“Song of the year??? Which year, 1923?” screamed one particularly nasty tweet (although it was actually all in caps).

“Grammys snubbing Taylor Swift,” cried another.

“(Swift) is the songwriter of our generation!”

And another all in caps: “This doesn’t make sense.”

There are many more online contributions crying foul over such a prestigious award going to such an ‘undeserving’ winner.

Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper even exposed its ignorance by headlining with a snarl claiming an unknown blues singer had beaten Swift.

It didn’t matter that Swift et al had all won Grammys in other categories that evening.

Neither did it matter that Raitt had also won two other Grammys in the same ceremony – one for Best Americana Performance and the other for Best American Roots Song.

Those two awards were merely Raitt ‘keeping in her own lane’ and not messing with the young kids competing for the big prize.

This feigned outrage was ageism on display in all its ugly glory.

The fact that even Raitt herself was shocked to win the big one shows how little the music industry usually values contributions from the old hands.

OK, that’s the music industry, and yes, it’s a young person’s game.

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Yet there are lessons to be taken from observing what played out in musicland last week – lessons for most other industries, including the public sector.

There is a diversity of ages in the Australian Public Service that should be celebrated.

Baby boomers, gen X, millennials and gen Z are all coexisting in the workplace, and they all have opinions about the other generations.

They also have much to gain from each other, whether they realise it or not.

There are more EL2s in the APS under the age of 30 today than there have ever been.

These young people are sharp, talented and enthusiastic. Some are ruthless. None have much life experience.

They’re going places and they want to get there fast.

Many would stand aghast if someone over 55 got promoted ahead of them, yet older generation workers have experience in truckloads.

It’s not all good experience, and not all valuable, but plenty of it is.

No one wants to see ‘oldies’ just ‘turning up’ until they get their pensions. Neither do we want a run of rash decisions that affect people’s lives being made by a young ‘know-it-all’ who thinks the world owes them.

The public service works best when the talents of level-headed people are recognised, utilised and valued regardless of age.

In the end, there is more that unites employees across the generations than divides them, but all parties need to be open to the very real notion that they can learn from each other.

That there is a place of valuable contribution for all working ages in the APS.

Because in the end, the best ideas and the best execution of those ideas should win the day – just like that.

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Good luck with that! Next you’ll tell me you believe in merit selection. Good to see Bonnie get up though.

There might not be any room for Ageism the the public service but I can tell you it is very alive!! I went on holidays at 61 and came back ? without any discussion) to find myself replaced by a shiny new and younger model and effectively demoted in my work and shoved sideways despite 99% of the time getting outstanding performance reviews!! Makes me sooo angry. Wisdom and a wealth of experience is not valued at all in the APS unless you are in the SES and even then sometimes not. So disappointing

Senior management is very invested in promoting ‘young people’ as a way of keeping them in the particular department or the service generally. There is also ageism at times that its not worth promoting this person because they will retire in a few years. I saw this on a number of occasions were said ‘old’ candidate was 50 – with potential 15+ years ahead of them (no they werent CSS people).

Country music isn’t what it used to be. Bonnie Raitt is a legend going way back. Not only in Blues but Country. Well done!

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