Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese

17 March 2017 | Beverley Cosgrove

Former federal treasurer Peter Costello famously asked Australians to have one child for mum, one for dad and one for the country, and while his remarks were made during a surge in the birth rate a decade ago, it appears the optimism of that era hasn't translated into a population boom. Instead, the prediction is that in the next 30 years, a quarter of the population will be aged over 65.

In 2002, there were more than five people of working age to support every person aged over 65. By 2042, it is estimated that the number of working age people will shrink by half.1 Over that same period, the number of people aged over 65 will increase from 2.5 million to 6.2 million. That means there will be half the number of workers supporting a cohort of people whose numbers are expected to increase nearly threefold over the same period. And the reason for the imbalance? Australians are having fewer children and living longer.

If the ramifications of the statistics aren't enough to scare you, then think about this — who will care for our elderly and our sick? Sooner or later, we are all going to be in that position and we (quite rightly) have an expectation that we will be provided for in a caring and professional way. And it is not just this dilemma that successive governments will have to grapple with — there are myriad issues including the affordability of our welfare system, how it will be paid for with declining workforce participation and tax revenue, housing needs and what the future labour market will actually look like.

Given the statistics, it makes sense to try and keep older Australians working as long as they are willing and able, but are Australian businesses listening to the increasing clamour about the risks to our economy, are they failing (or slow) to understand the consequences or are they choosing to ignore them? The statistics tend to support a combination of both.

To get some context, here are a few salient facts:

  • The World Health Organisation defines an older worker as a person aged 45 and over.
  • A national survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 27% of the 2000+ workers surveyed had been discriminated against because of their age.
  • In the year to June 2010, 71% of Australians aged 55–59 years were participating in the workforce. This compares with 51% of 60–64 year olds and 24% of those aged 65–69.
  • While older workers are less likely to be underemployed than younger workers, on average, older workers tend to remain underemployed for longer (6 months or more).2
  • A report by Chandler Macleod cites Australian Bureau Statistics (ABS) figures that 45–54 year olds are unemployed for an average of 52 weeks and 55+ year olds for 75 weeks — more than twice the average period for those under 45.
  • The same report found that 44% of employers are unprepared for the impact of an increasingly ageing workforce, believing that changing demographics will have little or no impact on their organisation. They perceived older workers as more experienced and more reliable, yet less computer literate, more resistant to change and more prone to health issues.
  • Only 20% of organisations have strategies in place to attract, engage or retain mature-aged employees. Where strategies exist, there is a disconnection between what is being put in place by employers and what employees want.

So when did becoming older morph from being a valued and respected member of the community to being a burden? And what can we do about it?

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the issue of age discrimination has been kicking around for 2 to 3 decades. The Australian Human Rights Commission Act was enacted in 1986 and the Age Discrimination Act came into effect in 2004. So although it is not something new, age discrimination is becoming more newsworthy as the population grows older. Rather than write-off older workers as being irrelevant or out-of-step with technology, we should be embracing the skills and life experience they can bring to our organisations. Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there's not a fire burning inside.3

Seriously though, cutesy proverbs aside, just because a person is older, doesn't mean they don't want to learn or participate in an activity that gives them a reason to get out of bed. Yes, there are people who don't want to learn, take direction or work as part of a team, but they can be drawn from any age group. To categorise older workers as "being past it" simply because they are older than 45 is to do a disservice to the very demographic that can help our country weather the coming storm.

Progressive organisations are already embracing the reality of an ageing workforce by employing older workers. Organisations that spring to mind are Coles, Bunnings and Kmart. All three are part of the Wesfarmers stable. When you go into their stores, you see mature-age workers working happily alongside Gen Yers and millennials. Out of curiosity, I asked one older worker (at my local Coles supermarket) if he liked his job. He often serves me at the checkout and his demeanour suggests he was once a person of authority. I was right. Now retired, he works a few hours a week to supplement his pension and he likes the interaction with customers. From my observation, he works quickly and efficiently and he is the only checkout operator that helps to load my groceries into the shopping trolley.

To garner another perspective, I spoke to James, small business owner of The Groove, my local cafe. When asked what he thought about employing mature-aged workers versus younger workers, James said:

It doesn't matter what a worker's age is, what matters is that they have the right attitude and the willingness to provide good customer service. It's the difference between what they give rather than what they take and whether or not they are too arrogant to take instruction. In saying that, I currently have an older bloke working for me who's streaks ahead in terms of service quality and attitude.

But James goes further. He wants to grow his small business and employ more people but says he is stymied by red tape and what he calls "headwinds" from all levels of government. He says:

What I do find frustrating in this country is the lack of support for entrepreneurs and small business. The levels of bureaucracy continually put roadblocks in the way of following our dreams. They're always telling us what we're doing wrong instead of supporting what we're doing right. The headwinds they create make it difficult to succeed.

Small businesses account for 44% of employment in this country. The ABS defines a small business as a business employing fewer than 20 people. This compares to 24.3% for medium-sized businesses (20–199 employees) and 31.7% for large businesses (200+ employees). With almost half of all businesses in Australia classified as "small business", this makes them an important source of employment for people of any age.

At the other end of the scale is a behemoth by comparison. The chief of Australia Post, Ahmed Fahour, was roundly criticised for comments he made about workers over 50. The comments were made in relation to his appearance at a Senate hearing and were reported in the Australian Financial Review. He reportedly said:

I think we've got an unusual situation where 45 per cent of our employees are above the age of 50 and they are, some of those groups of people, are thinking less about new skills, new training and they are thinking more around "I want to retire one day and keep it as simple as possible until that point".4

There might very well be long-term Australia Post workers nearing retirement who choose to cruise to retirement, but there will also be those who decide to move with the times and learn new skills. I listened to an ABC radio interview shortly after the furore and I think Fahour's explanation was perfectly reasonable. He also told 3AW's Neil Mitchell that he didn't have a problem with people over 50 just focusing on retirement and not learning new skills, but the majority of people were "rapt" that Australia Post had put in place a program called Post People 1st. He said:

So far 6000 of our employees are on average older, and that experience and that knowledge has been brilliant for us. We've been able to transition very knowledgeable people who know their business and our business incredibly. Today, two in three employees are transitioned to a new job from their existing job.

Australia Post currently has approximately 4500 people working for them who are over the age of 60.

Provided the culture of an organisation is sound, there is no reason why one age group can't work alongside another. Most people, regardless of their age, want to feel recognised and valued for their skills, they want to learn new things, and they want to do so in an environment where they feel supported. Yet, according to the Chandler Macleod survey, age-related discrimination is still a problem in Australia, with the average employer believing discrimination becomes evident at 54 years of age, while employees perceive age discrimination becomes evident for jobseekers as young as 48. Clearly, there is a discrepancy with perception.

A study by the Australian Seniors Insurance Agency (ASIA) found that three in five people over 50 (the Baby Boomers) said they faced substantial obstacles in their attempts to find a job. The respondents said it took longer than 6 months to find a job when making a career move and one in six said it took them 5 years or more. Interestingly, the ASIA spokesman said Gen Yers were costing the Australian economy up to $2.8 billion more than Baby Boomers a year because Baby Boomers typically take an average of 3 days sick leave per year, while Gen Yers took an average of 6 days.

Their research, which involved a study of 1200 people across Australia, also found that more than three quarters of Baby Boomers adapt well to technological innovations, and 73% were actively seeking training opportunities. So much for the perception that older workers do not like change.

Overwhelmingly, small business owners I have spoken to laud the work ethic of older workers. And we've read about success stories at the big end of town, but as the Chandler Macleod survey highlights, there is still a long way to go. So let us stop putting labels on people. Let us stop making assumptions about what older people can and cannot do and will or won't do. Let us (instead) think less about the problems caused by an ageing population and more about how we can best take advantage of the skills and life experience of our older Australians. The risk to Australia's future economic stability from an ageing population is not make-believe; the research and statistical analysis indicates it is real, so it requires a coordinated national response.

This article originally appeared in Risk Management Today vol 27 no 1 – Feb 2017.

Beverley Cosgrove

Risk Management Professional

About the author

Beverley has extensive experience working as a risk management professional in private enterprise and local government. She holds post-graduate qualifications in risk management and was the first person in Australasia to be awarded RMIA's Certified Risk Management Technician accreditation.

* Billie Burke was an American actress, best known as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz. She lived from 1884–1970.
1 See
2 Australian Bureau Statistics "4102.0 — Australian social trends" (September 2010).
3 Bonnie Hunt is an American stand-up comedian, actress, director, producer, writer, host and voice artist. She was born in 1961.
4 P Riordan "Australia Post Ahmed Fahour slammed for complaining about his over-50s workers" (18 October 2016)

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