Talkin’ about my generation: harnessing the power of oldness at work

Lisa Annese
Topics Age
Lisa Annese Chief Executive Officer Diversity Council Australia

The release of the Intergenerational report in early March catapulted me into a state of confusion.

Only the night before, I had been at the Australian Human Rights Commission launch of their corporate toolkit where they played a short video developed by the Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Susan Ryan AO.  This video celebrates the power of oldness.  Not only is it thoroughly entertaining but it also dispels some of the myths about the capability of people in their more mature years. 

However, the quirky video also revealed a sinister reality – that mature age workers face substantial discrimination and other barriers to fully participating in the workplace.

The Intergenerational Report has projected life expectancies to increase to 95.1 years for men and 96.6 years for women by 2054-55. It also projects labour market participation rates among those aged 65 and over to increase from the current rate of 12.9% to 17.3% in 2054-55. But until we tackle widespread ageism, is this increase really possible?

For most people, paid work is an incredibly important part of their lives. Not only does it provide a pathway to financial security but it also provides social interaction. It can contribute to improved self-esteem, mental and physical health and life satisfaction. Yet the Australian Human Rights Commission has reported that age discrimination was most likely to occur in the workplace, and that more than a third of Australians aged 55+ years have experienced age-related discrimination.

Dishearteningly, the Commission also found that younger business decision makers are the most likely to hold negative views of the workplace capabilities of older workers. In the context of an ageing population and an ageing workforce, this type of stereotyping is very problematic.

All of this is despite the fact that we know employing older workers can bring a range of benefits both to our workplaces and to the national economy. For example, increasing the labour participation of women throughout their working lives is estimated to have a major impact on the national economy.

Economist have noted the major impact that increasing the participation of older women would have on the economy. Modelling by the Productivity Commission indicates that increasing older women’s labour participation rates to match men’s could increase per capita GDP growth to 2044-45 by 1.5%. Research by the Grattan Institute has found that the combination of increased labour participation by women and older people could grow GDP by $50 billion over the next decade.

For older women, continued workforce participation throughout their later years is especially important as their retirement savings are likely to be much less than men’s. Men have an average super payout of $198,000, while women average $112,600[1] due to the increasing gender pay gap and time out of paid work to accommodate caring responsibilities.

There are clearly benefits to our economy of ensuring increased labour market participation by our older workers. But what other benefits can older workers bring to our workplaces?

Older workers often have significant knowledge and skills that they accumulated over their time in the workforce, and can assist employers and their colleagues to:

  • look at business operations from a different perspective
  • improve business processes
  • fill many skill or knowledge gaps
  • provide mentoring to less experienced employees
  • train other employees by sharing skills.

So how can we start a positive conversation in workplaces around engaging older workers and removing bias and discrimination against them?

Diversity Council Australia has conducted extensive research into labour market issues affecting mature age women and what employers can do to attract and retain older women.  In our report, Older Women Matter, a framework is laid out to positively support women into improved workforce participation. This framework (see below) provides a set of guided principles around productive employee engagement, workplace flexibility and the removal of structural and cultural barriers.

A framework for organisational action: making older female workers matter. Source talent  - Consider Careers & Capabilities - Cultivate Culture - Get Flexible - Invest in Health & Wellbeing - Focus on Finances - Tailor Transitions.

Employers can implement a range of initiatives to better support mature age works, in particular older women. But first we need to stop thinking negatively about older workers and start appreciating the enormous potential and value that older workers bring to workplaces across the country.

Then we can truly harness the power of oldness. 

Lisa Annese
Chief Executive Officer
Diversity Council Australia

[1] Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, Super-poor but Surviving, (2011)

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