Work while you can, but not ‘til you drop
This week’s release of the 2010 Intergenerational Report by Treasurer Wayne Swan brought the issue of mature-age workers rightly into the spotlight.
Few issues are as important to our nation’s future as responding to the long-term trend of an ageing population.
It was therefore disappointing to see the inflammatory response of Coalition Seniors spokesperson Bronwyn Bishop claiming that the Government was demonising older people and forcing them to work until they drop.
This silly and ill-considered outburst shows how out of touch the Opposition is to the challenges confronting the country and the needs of older Australians.
As Employment Participation Minister I receive a steady flow of letters and emails from older Australians who want to keep working and keep contributing to our nation.
Far from being forced to work, these Australians are seeking greater opportunities and support in the work place; most of all they want choice.
For this shift to happen, all of us will need to look very carefully at the barriers faced by older workers, including employer attitudes, work-place discrimination and a perceived lack of community support.
While mature age unemployment remains relatively low when compared to the rest of the work force, the statistics ignore the labour force participation rate for older Australians which is lower than any other demographic group, and below that of comparable economies like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
Worryingly, when older workers lose their job, they are likely to be unemployed for much longer. Australian Bureau of Statistics research reveals young workers are unemployed an average of 20 weeks, but for people 45 and over the average length of unemployment is 52 weeks.
Mature men are more often affected; particular those with low skills who have had a hard working life in manual occupations. Many will leave the workforce early through injury or chronic pain.
The Federal Government understands it has to play a significant role on the issue, but business must do its bit too.
Where work is highly physical, employers will need to think about how jobs and tasks can be designed to accommodate mature workers and invest in training, workplace design and career paths for older workers.
To help employers make this culture change, the Treasurer and I this week announced a $43.3 million Productive Ageing package. It includes investment in quality training for mature jobseekers and financial support for employers to assist them transition mature workers; helping them to retrain and become supervisors, workplace assessors and trainers.
This funding will be crucial in helping to meet the future skills needs of the country, with older tradespeople being encouraged to take on the crucial task of training and mentoring apprentices.
Funds are also available to assist older workers with a health condition or injury which impacts their ability to do their job.
But the Government’s package is just one part of the solution.
We also know that some employers unfairly and illegally discriminate against mature people when taking on new workers.
That’s why the government recently tightened up laws to clamp down on this unfair and illegal treatment in the workplace. But laws alone are not enough to change attitudes.
Most importantly employers and younger co-workers need to put aside stereotypes and preconceived ideas about older workers and recognise they are an asset and important resource for their organisation.
There is no doubt maturity and experience are priceless. Mature workers have practical skills, are productive and can mentor younger, less experienced colleagues. They tend to have lower rates of absenteeism, fewer work accidents and show a much greater level of loyalty to their employers when compared to the more mobile younger generations.
And with the Australian economy moving into the recovery phase and skills shortages predicted in the next few years, mature workers will play a vital role in our economic prosperity.
Older workers will not only be needed to help drive the recovery, but to help train the apprentices and younger workers needed for the major projects of tomorrow.
With these challenges, as a community we should be looking to a new form of retirement – one that has a transition, not just a sudden exit, from the workforce.
Individuals should always have the right to make a choice – this isn’t about forcing people to “work til you drop”, as claimed by Ms Bishop. It can involve full-time, part-time or casual work, community engagement and volunteering as well as enjoying the fruits of retirement.
If we fail to make the changes and fully harness the productive capacity of mature workers, our economy and our country will be worse off.
This is a complex national conversation which needs to be above petty politics. If people want to work, they should have that opportunity.
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