Privileged elite or double-y disadvantaged?
Ageing workers in Australia’s labour market

What is the state-of-play for mature-aged workers in the Australian labour market? Are they a ‘disadvantaged group’ or instead part of the privileged elite? This article co-authored by Dr Chris Kossen, University of Southern Queensland and Dr Jane O′Leary, DCA′s Research Director, considers this issue and in the process, raises the concept of employment ‘scarring’ and offers suggestions for employers seeking to address ‘grey walls and ceilings’ associated with this social phenomenon.

Mature-age workers1 are often referred to as the ‘newly disadvantaged’ in diversity circles, yet is this really the case? We only have to look at the upper echelons in organisations to see that a substantial proportion of mature-age workers are far from disadvantaged. Indeed many are very well positioned, with high-ranking jobs that have high levels of job security and remuneration. Despite this, the statistics demonstrate that for many mature-age workers, ageing is a major risk factor leading to marginalisation from the labour force (specifically from secure full-time employment).

Australia′s economic downturns and industrial restructuring, most notably in the 70s and 80s, has been a leading force behind the mass retrenchment of mature-age (or older) workers, as they were the main target of early redundancy policies aimed at shedding workers. Many of those in this age cohort also worked in industries experiencing the largest declines in demand for labour, including manufacturing and construction (Toner 2000). However, large numbers of males with relatively high standards of education were also retrenched from middle management and professional jobs. Displaced white collar workers experienced similar difficulties to their blue collar counterparts in regaining full-time employment (Borland 2004). ABS data showed from mid-1990s to early 2000s, one in three workers over 45 years was not in the workforce (Encel 2003). While participation rates for mature-age females have continued to increase markedly since the 1970s, participation rates for both females and males decreases dramatically as they become older mature-age, that is, 55 years and over (ABS 2002).

Moreover, despite the ‘record low unemployment rate’ news headlines of late, a close examination of labour market statistics reveals ‘hidden unemployment’ amongst older mature-age workers – that is, long term unemployment and underemployment. The past decade has seen substantial growth in jobs, the bulk of which have not been in standard full time jobs, but instead in casual, short-term contracts, temporary labour hire and part-time forms of work (Watson 2008). The high net growth of non-standard forms of employment and the continued trend in increased female participation has offset statistical data on unemployment levels for mature-age workers, inadvertently concealing the extent of unemployment, long term unemployment and underemployment among older mature-age workers.

‘Scarring’ the mature-age worker

Older mature-age workers are particularly susceptible to ‘scarring’ (Lee & Miller, 1999) of their employability profile. Here, unemployed mature-age workers’ attractiveness to potential employers is eroded or ‘scarred’ over time, as the duration of their unemployment increases. Added to this, where work is obtained, this tends to be restricted to secondary employment – that is, peripheral sector jobs that tend to require fewer skills, and provide lower rates of pay, have little job security, tend to provide far fewer benefits (e.g. no paid sick or holiday leave) and have fewer (and fluctuating) hours of paid work (e.g. casual and part-time). Secondary work jobs tend to provide very little opportunity for career development and in many cases do not provide a pathway to primary sector jobs (Peetz 2005). Thus, for many older Australians, the combination of continuing unemployment and/or underemployment ‘scars’ their employment prospects, compromising their ability to rejoin the core workforce.

Double dipping on disadvantage

In many ways, it can therefore be argued that older mature-age workers are ‘double-dipping’ when it comes to employment disadvantage: they face erroneous assumptions and stereotypes associated with both age and with unemployment.

In relation to the unemployed, stereotypes such as idle, incompetent and lazy are widespread both here in Australia and internationally (Eardley & Matheson, 1999; McFadyen, 1998). In relation to age, stereotypes of ageing can start to disadvantage workers in their 40s and intensify in later decades (Encel 2003; Encel & Studencki 2004; Ranzijn, Carson & Wineberg 2004). Many employers continue to stereotypically perceive older workers as being less alert, less adaptable to change, less healthy, less creative and less hardworking (Encel & Studencki 2004; Peetz 2005; Ranzijn, Carson & Winefield 2004). Yet, reviews of productivity research in Australia and internationally have consistently shown that, as a group, older workers have lower rates of absenteeism, have fewer accidents, make fewer mistakes (e.g. high rates of accuracy), remain in the same job longer (that is, lower staff turnover), have good rates of work output, and are able to learn effectively and contribute beneficial experiential knowledge to workplaces (Encel 2003; Pickersgill et. al. 1996). Indeed, a large body of accumulated research shows mature-age workers, as a group demonstrate superior abilities compared with their younger counterparts in areas related to flexibility, showing initiative, task prioritization, creative thinking and problem solving (Salthouse & Maurer 1996).

Pushing through ‘grey walls and ceilings’

Employers seeking to address the ‘grey walls and ceilings’ associated with the scarring of older workers’ employability profile can work pro-actively with their recruitment advisors and agencies, encouraging or even requiring them to put forward mature-age candidates, including those whose employment history may be impressive overall, despite having recent periods of sustained unemployment and/or underemployment in secondary or peripheral roles. Recruiters often rely on candidates’ most recent employment history as a quick culling mechanism, particularly where there are large numbers of applicants. While efficient, this may not actually be effective, particularly when it comes to recruiting a generationally diverse workforce.

It is also possible to take an even more pro-active stance with private recruitment firms, for instance by requiring them to demonstrate their staff have been trained in recruiting for generational diversity and preventing age discrimination and/or even encouraging them to report on the age diversity of applicants they put forward to clients and on successful applicants. There are also a number of private (non-government funded) recruitment firms that specialise in assisting mature-age people – for example,, DOME, SilverTemp, BeNext, Grey Hair Alchemy, 40plus and Adage.

The significance of intervening at the recruitment stage is critical given research indicates that age discrimination is most likely to be experienced at the recruitment stage (AHRC, 2010), and that recruitment agencies are reluctant to accept older workers as clients or recommend them to employers (NSW MACA, 2009). This seems to be well recognised amongst mature-age job seekers themselves, with one study finding that while 70% of mature-age job seekers had used a recruitment agency, this job search method was ranked last, below newspaper advertisements, cold calling and using personal networks as the most successful in securing employment (Encel & Studencki, 2004).

Some promising signs?

While this article has painted somewhat of a gloomy picture for mature-age workers in the Australian labour market, strategic interventions with recruitment advisors and agencies outlined above, in company with other moves by government and business, suggest a positive shift may be underway.

There are some promising signs with governments and business having begun to more actively embrace the idea of training and recruiting mature-age workers as an important means by which to insulate against the skill shortages which are predicted to worsen as baby boomers start retiring in large numbers (Productivity Commission 2005). For example, the introduction of an incentivised mature-age apprenticeship scheme by the federal government in 2000s saw the removal of traditional age restrictions that had applied to apprenticeship training. And 2007 also saw the introduction of superannuation and taxation reforms with incentives for workers to remain in the workforce after age 60. While more recent policy developments on participation and retention have included the opening up of military jobs for older workers and the introduction of superannuation and taxation reforms with genuine incentives designed to make continued workforce participation including part-time employment financially attractive to older workers.

Changes such as these, in company with more inclusive and ‘mature-age-friendly’ attraction and retention practices, may start to generate the positive employment outcomes for mature-age workers that employers are increasingly seeking.

1 While the terms mature-age and older are used interchangeably in the literature to define workers 45 years and over, ‘mature-age worker’ has become more popular in recent years. There is also a further distinction with the term older mature-age worker to refer to a subcategory of those 55 years and over. It should be noted that the term worker is also being used to refer to those who are unemployed and those forced into what may be considered early retirement - provided they are available and willing to work (ABS, definition).

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