By Justine Irving
Lecturer, Gerontology Department Flinders University
Researcher, Centre for Workplace Excellence University of South Australia
Working longer has many tangible benefits. Older adults in employment can bolster labour force supply, benefit the economy, increase the tax base whilst reducing reliance on Age and other pensions. In itself, evidence suggests that employment in high quality work can support and protect the physical and mental health of men and women as they age.
In recognition of these benefits, recent Federal budget initiatives include subsidies for employers hiring workers aged 50 years and older (up to $10,000), and funding for ‘at risk’ mature-aged workers to attend upskilling opportunities (up to $2,000) to improve their ‘employability’.
Initiatives intended to extend our working lives are important. It’s equally important that these initiatives respond to and address the underlying barriers and enablers associated with older worker employment. The effectiveness of policies designed to keep people working longer will always be impacted by how older workers are perceived and employer willingness to accommodate the needs of this group.
Based on recent national and international research into older workers, one of the primary impediments to retaining and securing work is the experience of ageism. Research conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission suggests that many supervisors hold negative perceptions of older people’s skills currency and ability to learn new things.
This same study found that one in ten employers or business owners suggested they have an age above which they will not recruit; the average of which is only 50 years. In addition, there is evidence that organisations view older workers as more costly to employ than their younger colleagues due to misconceptions regarding increased sick and annual leave benefits, resistance to major organisational change, shorter potential career outlook and poorer information technology skills and adaptability.
This poses some questions: will $10,000 act as a sufficient carrot to disrupt these attitudes or will it benefit employers who already recognise the value of older workers within their workforce (a reward in itself which is not necessarily a negative)? Is lack of skills the major issue facing older adults seeking work?
National strategies to extend workforce participation require multiple approaches, including those targeting the rationale behind the discrimination and deeply entrenched negative stereotypes associated with ageing.
A 2016 study identified three key labour market themes shared by countries that perform strongly on the Golden Age Index. These are:
- Encouraging later retirement: through pension reform or introduction of other financial incentives that encourage adults to continue to work past traditional retirement age
- Improving employability: promoting lifelong education and training to maintain skills currency and relevance
- Reducing employment barriers for older workers: including stricter regulation around labour market discrimination against older workers.1
Ultimately, older workers are a key element of a diverse workforce. Diversity of workers in an organisation, including a mix of younger and older workers, ensures breadth of experience, skills and knowledge from which to meet the varied needs of consumers.
Organisations should be encouraged to regularly undertake diversity assessments (including employee age distributions), question cultural attitudes regarding ageing, and examine their recruitment practices in relation to mature-aged workers.
We need get over getting older. Despite incredible improvements in health, quality of life and longevity many still see an ageing population as a ‘crisis’ rather than a source of multiple opportunities and something to be proud of. Older workers want to work; we just need to ensure that they are empowered to do so.
 PwC. PwC Golden Age Index: How well are OECD economies harnessing the power of an older workforce? 2016.