17 May A Future Without Age Productive Ageing
The social implications and economic opportunities created by Australia’s ageing population were the key themes of Global Access Partners (GAP) and Australian Centre
for Health Research (ACHR) Conference on Productive Ageing held at NSW Parliament House on Friday, 17 May 2013.
Delegates from a broad range of government, commercial and civic organisationsagreed that government, employers and society itself must take positive action to encourage productive ageing and build a ‘future without age’. Mature workforce participation, expanded volunteering and other socially beneficial activities will ensure that Australian’s growing army of senior citizens are able to make the most of their ever lengthening life spans. However, the long-standing consensus behind ‘productive ageing’ in theory must be supported by social and commercial attitudes in practice and government policy improved where it remains fragmented and ineffectual today.
In common with other OECD nations, Australia’s ageing population and increasing life expectancy are adding to its pension burden, while the economy suffers from lacklustre productivity growth. In 1970, only 8% of Australians were older than 64; in 2050, almost a quarter will be 64 or more. Pension ages have been increased, but still lag behind ever growing life expectancy, particularly from the age of 65, and have little immediate effect on individual retirement decisions. Although workforce participation by over 55s is on the rise, an increase of 3% would increase GDP by $33 billion, while 5% growth would see 750,000 benefit recipients become tax payers and give the economy a $48 billion boost. 2 million older people are willing and able to work and their under employment currently costs Australia $10.8 billion a year in lost GDP. Increasing mature age participation in the workforce also improves commercial productivity and the physical and mental health of older people. Australia’s relatively low unemployment means that older workers can be encouraged to stay on without affecting youth employment.
Unfortunately, employer and employee attitudes still lag behind Australia’s demographic and economic realities. Healthy 65 year olds will live 50% longer than figures based on life expectancy at birth suggest and so older workers often underestimate their pension and activity needs, while many employers unfairly denigrate their worth. Mature age workers were the first to be fired and last to be hired as companies restructured in the face of growing international competition and are often excluded from ongoing skills training. They suffer from ageist prejudice against their energy, costs, commitment, flexibility and willingness to learn, while tax and superannuation arrangements can still encourage retirement rather than continued employment, despite recent government reforms.
More experienced workers offer companies tangible commercial benefits in terms of loyalty, practical experience, reliability, time keeping, customer service and managerial and supervisory skills. The most successful and productive firms employ a wide age range and encourage intergenerational interaction to share both long experience and new ideas. Lifelong learning must be emphasised to maintain employable skills, particularly as older workers are well suited to a new digital economy prizing knowledge over physical strength.
Public Policy – Rather than confine itself to the care and support of the very frail, public policy must drive ‘positive ageing’ beyond the workplace through expanded volunteering, IT training, healthy living education and other schemes to make the most of Australia’s most experienced citizens. Governments must discourage the use of unemployment and disability benefits as a path into early retirement and invest in skills and training programmes to improve mature age employability. The remaining financial disincentives to continued work must be replaced by flexible combinations of work and pension arrangements to encourage employee retention or phased retirement schemes. Employment barriers should be eroded through enforcement of existing age discrimination legislation, public information campaigns and the targeted education of employers and recruiters regarding the demonstrable and significant commercial benefits of employing older Australians. Local, state and federal governments must pursue an integrated, whole-of-government approach which allows for the diverse needs of older citizens, and partner with business and civic organisations to forge age-positive cultural change. Measures must be adequately resourced, properly targeted and implemented at every level.
Older Workers – Older workers must be retained in the workforce for longer, or encouraged to re-enter the workforce in new roles in the growing services sector, including education, retail and digital services and aged care. The financial, physical and mental benefits of remaining in work and pursuing active community involvement must be emphasised to all Australians in good time. The employability of older workers can be enhanced through modernising their skills, improving job search avenues, emphasising online learning and reforming working conditions to suit their needs.
Employers – Employers must develop explicit and proactive age management plans to compete successfully in a tightening labour market. Age friendly working environments will abolish mandatory retirement, embrace open and external recruitment and expand telework where possible. The creation of age diverse teams and promotion of mutually beneficial mentoring will also help younger workers at risk of disengagement and under productivity. Successful companies will increasingly rely on the input of older workers to widen and deepen their talent pool and abandon the outdated stereotypes which continue to hold older people back from maximising their contribution to the workplace and society.