Ageing workers are a resource of growing importance

Date: May 4, 2015

Philip Taylor, Michael O’Neill and Alison Monroe

Much is known about the labour market situation of older workers but no attempts have been made to collate this knowledge in a way that aids government policy development.

Particularly useful would be consideration of how to engender positive attitude change among employers and older people themselves.

Particularly useful would be consideration of how to engender positive attitude change among employers and older people themselves.

Any policy interest in mature-age workers is to be welcomed. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent announcement of its inquiry Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability presents a good opportunity to push the issue further up the agenda. But is this the right inquiry, and what is preventing concerted government action now?

Labour-market age barriers are in sharp focus internationally as governments, concerned with the economic effects of ageing populations, have acted to encourage longer working lives.

In the coming decades Australia’s workforce will experience a significant ageing and, simultaneously, shrinking, bringing to the fore the issue of the employment of older workers. In combination with declining birth rates, the retirement of a large cohort of baby boomers is expected to reduce the supply of skilled workers, contribute to a lowering of workforce participation rates, and raise dependency ratios.

Addressing workforce ageing is rightly viewed as critical to the nation’s economic performance, with the Treasury’s Intergenerational Reports referring to the need to improve mature-age labour-force participation rates.

Strategy development concerning the best use of older workers by the Australian economy is long overdue. Ageism faced by mature workers is certainly an important barrier to their employment, as evidenced by research undertaken by the National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre, but an inquiry centred on this risks portraying older people as victims, taking away any individual responsibility.

Perversely, another risk with the inquiry’s singular focus on ageism and age discrimination is that this may add to the stigma older people may face, confirming public perceptions of them as disadvantaged, and potentially further entrenching ageist attitudes. Also notable is that apparently the inquiry has no interest in ageism and its effects on the young, despite state and federal legislation proscribing age discrimination against people of any age.

A reductionist view of older workers’ labour-market problems as being solely a consequence of ageism also ignores key facets of what is a complex issue. A broader inquiry would be more helpful. This could usefully consider such issues as the employability of older workers and the incentives and disincentives to working provided by the social welfare and pension systems.

Importantly, a substantial amount is already known about the position of older workers in the labour markets of developed nations, including the nature and effects of age discrimination. There is a vast international policy and academic literature stretching back several decades, with major reviews and inquiries undertaken by national governments and bodies such as the European Commission and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

With the field already well ploughed, what then could a new inquiry consider? Much is known about the labour market situation of older workers but there have been no attempts to draw this knowledge together in a way that can effectively inform policy efforts in Australia. Notably, there has been a surge in public policy in the area of ageing and work internationally over more than a decade. Nations such as Finland, Germany, Japan, Singapore and Britain have been particularly active. The challenges these countries are facing are not so different that their actions would not provide potentially useful templates for Australia, where policy work to date has been rather more modest. So the inquiry could usefully take a considered look at what has worked elsewhere.

Particularly useful would be consideration of how to engender positive attitude change among employers and older people themselves. In this regard, internationally several projects targeting industry attitudes to older workers have been undertaken, for example, Age Platform Europe, Combating Age Barriers in Employment, and Employment Initiatives for an Ageing Workforce, funded by the European Union, the Finnish National Programme on Ageing Workers, Age Positive, the Employers’ Forum on Age and the Third Age Employment Network in Britain, and the AARP Best Employers International Award in the US.

Such analysis could help increase the impact of the Corporate Champions program, implemented by Labor and retained by the Coalition, which has been one of the more successful ways of creating action by Australian employers concerning workforce ageing. Above all, what is required is a strategic framework containing evidence-based proposals for raising the labour-force participation of older Australians and government will to act. It is to be hoped that the present inquiry will form part of such a holistic approach.

Philip Taylor is director of the Australian Retirement Research Institute, Federation University Australia. Michael O’Neill is chief executive office of National Seniors Australia. Alison Monroe is chief executive officer of Sageco management consultants.

Source: The Age

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