What’s Age Got to Do With It?

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July 2017

By Philip Taylor and Warwick Smith

Australia, along with the other developed economies, is grappling with the implications of an ageing population. Concerns about increasing welfare costs and shortfalls of labour supply have brought with them calls to prolong working lives. However, current public policy is inadequate if the nation wishes to make the best use of its ageing workforce. Present approaches to both public policy and advocacy have the potential to be harmful in terms of their response to age barriers in society. A piecemeal set of measures lacking legitimacy have emerged, with objectives that lack a road-map for how they will be achieved.

Age-based stereotypes (such as loyal, reliable, wise) are often used by older people’s advocates but recent research has shown that these stereotypes may be reinforcing already existing negative views of older workers among employers because these are not the traits they are primarily looking for in employees. This has potentially important implications for efforts to overcome age discrimination by employers. Not only are older workers being promoted in terms of qualities that employers are already more likely to ascribe to them, such qualities are given a lower weighting in terms of employment decisions that take account of productivity.

The push to extend working lives also has the potential to stigmatise those who retire from the paid workforce as no longer pulling their weight in a society where being retired is increasingly viewed as a kind of unemployment. What happens if governments remove one of the moral foundations of the welfare state – retirement – without there being a realistic alternative?

Compounding this situation is the rise of automation, which by 2031 may make up to two and a half million older workers redundant. Not only will they be out of work but their skills will be outdated. At the same time an approximately equal number of younger workers will also have been made redundant.

Taking a long view, the casualisation of Australia’s workforce may be a ticking time-bomb for tomorrow’s older workers. Older people who are presently finding it difficult to get back into the workforce 10 or 15 years before they can access retirement income may be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the big issues facing young people as they age in the ‘gig economy’.

This report attempts to offer a fresh approach, challenging the basis of the present advocacy on ageing and work. Against a background of apparent age inequality in the Australian labour market affecting both young and old, recent efforts aimed at overcoming barriers to older workers are considered and critiqued. The report offers a framework for developing public policy on age and work, proposing principles against which the legitimacy of actions should be tested. The framework has three elements:

  1. A need for a life course perspective when considering the issue1. A need for a life course perspective when considering the issue
  2. A requirement to remove a tendency towards ageism from public policy and age advocacy
  3. A need for a critical stance on the present public policy emphasis on prolonging working lives.

The report puts forward the follow recommendations for action:

  1. A National Ageing Workforce Strategy (NAWS) to provide an overarching framework for government action, replacing the present piecemeal approach.1. A National Ageing Workforce Strategy (NAWS) to provide an overarching framework for government action, replacing the present piecemeal approach.
  2. That NAWS be underpinned by a national fund to support pilot projects aimed at overcoming age barriers across the lifecourse, assisting mid-career and older workers in transition and the trialling of new welfare models that support older people wishing to re-enter and those outside of the paid labour force.
  3. That generational solidarity be a major focus of efforts, with the activities of the Age Discrimination Commissioner broadened to consider issues of both young and old.
  4. That conceptions of older people’s social participation be broadened to encompass and recognise more than merely paid work, with new measures of ‘dependency ratios’ developed that take account of community contributions, and that national targets for increasing rates of such contributions are set.
  5. That a lifecourse approach to employment policy supplement, or replace, age-based approaches, so that specific schemes targeting older (or younger) workers are abolished unless their continued existence can be justified.
  6. Against a backdrop of changing demography and a transforming economy an overhaul of the nation’s education system to focus more on adult continuing education.
  7. The founding of a national body – the Centre on Disrupting Ageing (CODA) – to promote and support older people’s ‘retirement careers’.
  8. The Government’s Restart scheme that presently subsidies employers hiring an older worker be re-cast as a supply-side measure, with a12- month wage subsidy paid directly to the long-term unemployed worker. Alongside this, we propose that people aged over 55 and who have been unemployed for more than six months should be eligible for a new Micro Enterprise Incentive Scheme (MEIS).
  9. The introduction of a job guarantee that rewards the participation of long-term jobless in ‘unpaid’ work after other efforts, for instance Restart, have been tried.
  10. The establishment of a national body,  The Alliance for Productive Ageing, led by  employer, trade union and industry peak bodies to inform good workplace practice in age management.

Tackling issues of age and work has huge potential to increase the nation’s productive capacity but this is a long-term project that requires attention not only to today’s older people but, importantly, tomorrow’s. Greater reflection on the meaning of age in Australian society is needed and advocates for older people need to rise to the challenge of setting an inclusive agenda that resonates for people of all ages.

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