Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wants older Australians to remain in the workforce to help buffer the economy from the impact of our ageing population. Mr Frydenberg says there will be fewer workers to pay for the demands on health, aged care, and pension systems.
But the workforce has been no country for old men, or women. The structures were designed when lives were shorter and different. There has been no recalibration.
This year’s federal budget delivered significant initiatives in the areas of pensions and aged care. However, the exclusive focus on job creation for younger workers missed the opportunity to address the disproportionate impact of economic downturns on mature-age and older workers.
Being 60-something or older today is not the same as it was for earlier generations. We are better educated, healthier, more interested in diet and exercise, and have access to improved healthcare. Ageing bodies can still, mostly, keep the appointments their minds make.
Nicole*, aged 68, was born and bred in Newcastle and her working life, starting at age 15, includes 40 years with the one company as well as successfully operating a family business.
“In the latter part of my working career I was contracted to a government department,” she says. “It was originally for three months and my job was to digitise information in preparation for a restructure.
“The contract was continually extended, and I was given greater responsibility. Many of the staff moved on because of the impending restructure. The department I worked in originally employed eight people, but in the end only two remained – me and another contractor. We were continually told we were doing good work.
“Finally, as part of the restructure, all positions were advertised. Me and the other contractor applied and were not even granted an interview. We had been running the department. I was 55 at the time. I had been there about three years and still felt I had a lot to offer. To be not even granted an interview was a real slap in the face.”
Nicole was then alerted to casual work with another government department.
“The hoops you have to jump through are ridiculous,” she says. “Debates and role plays over two days – I went along with that and was then granted a one-on-one interview.
“When I was phoned back and informed I’d missed out, the reason given was that I’d sworn during the interview. It was complete rubbish. I was gobsmacked. The interviewer must have mixed me up with someone else. I was so deflated. You feel as if nobody wants you.”
Nicole then commuted to Sydney for casual work for two years before coronavirus brought an end to it. They were long days, and she was totally exhausted, but she needed the money.
Nicole knows she is a good mentor and has an excellent work ethic, but despairs at the attitude of employers. The reluctance to use older workers is baffling. Council on the Ageing chief executive Ian Yates says employer attitudes will have to undergo a major culture change.
“At least 30 per cent of employers told the Australian Human Rights Commission last year that they would not recruit workers over 50, which is morally reprehensible and entirely illegal,” Mr Yates says.
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Social Justice Statement of 2016-17 was titled “A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society” and noted: “… governments and employers must recognise the true capacities of older people.”
Fortunately, there is some hope. Aurora’s August alumni Nadene Barretto, managing director of Eight Recruitment, says employers have approached her in the past few years seeking older workers.
“One employer said to me, ‘I need some grey hair around the place’,” she says. “I connected him with Paul Nixon, in his early to mid-50s, and his mentoring abilities are really well-respected.”
That employer was Hamish Leitch, who in his mid-20s had taken over as general manager of the family owned and operated mining support business Aletek. Mr Leitch realised the operation needed an experienced business leader and coach. Mr Nixon had spent 20 years with Wesfarmers before taking a redundancy.
“I complement Hamish because of the age difference,” says Mr Nixon. “Aletek could have hired someone younger, but the demographic works very well. It’s about life skills, not just specific business skills.”
Baby boomers (born 1946-1963) are the first generation of retirees in history to have witnessed their parents’ retirement and ageing. Previous generations of parents did not grow old as we now grow old.
*Not her real name