The Abbott Government has announced, as part of its Budget measures, that the pension age will be raised to age 70 by 2035. Diversity Council Australia’s research has found that many older people want to continue in the paid workforce and that there are major benefits for businesses and individual employees to be gained through encouraging and supporting older workers.
However, the Government and employers need to do more to attract and retain mature-age talent in the workplace and tackle age discrimination.
As Australia’s population ages, continuing skills shortages and changing labour markets mean that it makes sense to encourage existing mature age workers to stay at work. And there is plenty of research that shows workplaces can really benefit from mature age talent; they represent an experienced, hardworking and productive talent pool with low absenteeism and strong loyalty and work ethic.
Retirement used to mean an abrupt end to one’s working life, generally at the age of 60 for women and 65 years for men, but now many older people want to continue active links to the workplace.
Our research has clearly shown that traditional retirement models are out-dated and that flexible ways of working, opportunities for learning and development, and an organisational culture inclusive and supportive of older employees are key factors in enabling older workers to stay at work.
It is, however, particularly important that employers address negative attitudes about older workers and other barriers to their workforce participation. DCA’s Working for the Future research found that age discrimination was the most common type of discrimination reported.
At 14%, it was almost twice that of the next most common perceived discrimination, gender (8%) and care-giving responsibilities (8%). This is despite the fact that other research has shown that many of the stereotypes about older people being inflexible, lacking in skills and unwilling to work or learn new skills are plain wrong.
Australian research has shown that assumptions about inadequate performance and low job commitment commonly attributed to older workers have no basis in reality. In addition, a study by the OECD concluded that, among OECD nations, verbal skills, communication and intelligence remain unchanged as a person ages. And according to ABS data, mature age people are the fastest growing users of information technology while other research supports the ability of mature age workers to learn new information technology skills and adjust to the introduction of new technologies in the workplace.
It has been of particular concern to DCA that employers are failing to harness the skills and talents of older women in particular, as identified in our recent Older Women Matter report.
Older women now constitute 17% of Australia’s workforce with 45% of women aged 45 and over now in the labour force compared with less than a quarter (24%) in 1978. Yet older women’s participation in the labour market is substantially lower than men’s in all age groups − as much as 17 points lower for women aged 55-64.
The underemployment rate for women aged 45 and over is 6.5% compared with 4.7% for men of the same age. The most recent comparable data shows participation rates for Australian women aged 55-64 of 54.9% compared with
- 72% in Sweden
- 69.8% in New Zealand
- 59.5% in the US, and
- 57.4% in Canada.
Thankfully, leading employers are recognising the value of older women and men, and have a range of strategies in place to attract and retain this mature-aged talent. These include offering flexible working arrangements, including part-time work, job-sharing and other ways of transitioning to retirement.
Through publicity, management programs and workplace discussion, these employers are proactively confronting workplace prejudices and showing that they value their employees, whatever age they are. They are also recognising the valuable experience of their older workers by implementing mentoring in the workplace, allowing younger workers to benefit from the knowledge of older workers and enabling knowledge transfer to preserve critical knowledge before it walks out the door. And they are facilitating life-long learning, including retraining, as well as providing older workers with roles that leverage off their experience and maturity.
We encourage all employers to follow the lead of these leading organisations to do more to attract, engage and retain older workers.
The benefits that could accrue to organisations that do this – such as improved retention, performance, innovation and market share as well as lowered legal and reputational risks – represent a huge opportunity. In addition, the benefits that will accrue for the wider economy and to older workers themselves make it all the more important.
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Diversity Council Australia Limited is the independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor to business in Australia. DCA provides diversity advice and strategy to over 250 organisations, many of whom are Australia’s biggest employers. DCA member organisations are estimated to employ more than 1m Australians, representing around 10% of the Australian workforce. For more information, visit www.dca.org.au.