Beard gone all grey? It’s still your right to go to work
Lately, the issue of keeping older people in the workforce has been finding its way into the media and government policy discussions.
And I have started to hear people asking why it has “suddenly” become so important to ensure that people can stay gainfully employed as they age.
The tragic reality in Australia today is that many people living on the Age Pension would prefer – either out of need or personal choice - to be gainfully employed.
In Australia today, approximately 80 percent of people aged 65 and older are reliant to some degree on the Age Pension. In fact, in 2007, 55 percent of over 65s were wholly dependent on it, and women made up 58 percent of that group.
As a society, we are getting older all the time. Short of disaster of an apocalyptic scale, nothing will stop or slow this trend. Women born today are likely to live until 95. Over the next 40 years, the number of people in Australia aged between 65 and 84 will more than double, while those 86 and above will quadruple.
While almost everyone needs to work until they are eligible for the Age Pension (which, by 2023, will be 67), the reality is that many of us will actually need to stay in work beyond that point.
And herein lies an anomaly. The Commonwealth Age Pension was introduced in 1909 at a time when life expectancy was 59 for women and 55 for men. Women were eligible for the Pension at age 60 and men at 65. Obviously, with life expectancy in the 50s, most people didn’t live long enough to receive it.
But today, by 1909 standards, many of us are living an additional lifetime on top of that.
Today, if we retire at the ‘traditional’ age of 60-65, many of us will have to find the money to fund up to 30 years of retirement.
We are also living in better health than ever before. And if Professor Ian Hickie from the University of Sydney is correct, older brains are healthy… and work keeps them that way.
Which leads us to a great conundrum. If people need to fund living this extra lifetime, and stay healthy, the majority of us will have to work. The trouble is, despite the fact that we are continually being told about the national skills shortage, despite the fact that Treasury projections show an ageing population will add about $60 billion to government expenditure by 2050, there is a groundswell of evidence that older people – a great many of them, women - are being kept out of employment by another, less savoury, modern development… age discrimination.
According to the Financial Services Council, three in 10 older workers have directly experienced age-related discrimination. At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we saw complaints about age discrimination increase by 44 percent between 1 July and 31 October 2011, compared to the previous year, and enquiries about discrimination on the basis of being too old go up by 78 percent. And, you guessed it, the majority (66 per cent) of enquiries received about age discrimination related to employment.
These complaints include documented cases of older workers being denied access to training and promotional opportunities or targeted for redundancy. We hear of age-based bullying and isolation in the workplace. And the alarming thing is that, statistically, you are classified as an “older worker” at 45.
Combined, these forces create a massive problem - for individuals and for the national economy.
If people are prevented from working longer, they will have fewer savings and be forced to live on the Age Pension for decades. And if this is the only source of income, it will be a mean and frugal way to live out that extra lifetime we have acquired.
Currently, one in four Australians over the age of 65 live below the OECD poverty threshold - over 18,000 people aged 55 or over were homeless on Census night in 2006 - 4,000 more than in 2001.
The lack of work opportunities for older Australians contributes to this dismal picture and age discrimination is one of its major drivers.
Thankfully, there is work being done to address this, like the Grey Areas inquiry being conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission.
It is imperative that we as a community – our policy-makers, our media, our business sector and more precisely, our employers – step up to change the way we think about ageing, to work hard to stamp out age discrimination and to accept that older people have the same right to work as everyone else.
Because let’s face it, with a bit of luck, we all expect to be an older person one day.
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