Ageing as a time of possibility, opportunity and influence

| January 25, 2017

We know the real productivity gains come from increasing workforce participation of people between 50 and 64 years of age. How can we remove barriers to enable this while better understanding the impact it will have on our society? Lisa Langley from COTA NSW explains.

After living in the United States for 17 years I returned to Australia. One of the first things that struck me was that there were not a lot of older faces on TV and in the media.

Where were the likes of long serving senior US media icons like Barbara Walters or Tom Brokaw? Where were the Australian programs that featured older people and celebrated middle age?

I realised I’d stepped back into a culture that valued youth and beauty above all else and often tossed its barely-beginning-to age citizens aside – relieving them of their workforce duties and sending them off to their bowling clubs and RSLs and for the more active – their golf, tennis and health clubs.

I heard stories from friends and family of people retrenched in their fifties and in some cases in their late forties who either wanted or needed to continue to work but were struggling to find work.

I wondered what long term effects that were going having on Australia – where great swaths of the population were continually being made redundant in every sense of the word.

It seemed an extraordinary contradiction; in a society where people were living longer, more active lives, so many struggled to keep a job after the age of fifty.

So what’s going on and what can be done?

Among comparable OECD countries, Australia has a relatively low workforce participation rate for people aged over 50 years. We know the real productivity gains come from increasing participation of people between 50 and 64 years of age.

We can’t rely on a collection of one off incentives or projects to encourage companies to hire older employees. It requires an ‘all in’ commitment on the part of both government and business that pulls some ‘big levers’ to tackle Australia’s underlying and persistent ageism and age discrimination.

COTA supports removing barriers to enable a longer working life for Australians and the right of older Australians to work on as long as they wish and are able.

At the same time, we also caution that a greater understanding is needed about the impact of longer working lives on individual older people and on our society.

For example, what do we know about the health and other circumstances of Australians over the age of 65 across all their varied population segments, both now and projected into the future, and how that will affect their capacity to work on to 70 years and beyond?

What will happen to those whose health does not allow them to work on into later years if the government uses levers such as older pension eligibility and superannuation preservation ages to enforce longer workforce participation?

Let’s also not forget that after paid employment older Australians make significant contributions as carers, grandparents, volunteers, consumers and taxpayers worth billions of dollars to the economy.

These contributions are not always counted in official statistics. No doubt these ‘productive’ roles, although not always properly quantified into the bottom line, contribute significantly to the prosperity of the overall economy.

What are the implications for people with illness or disability who currently rely on older family members to care for them (usually on an unpaid basis) if those carers are continuing longer in the paid workforce?

How will the substantial volunteer contribution of older Australians in the community be replaced (or not) if they are working longer?

Finally, what are the implications for workforce participation by parents of young children (particularly women) if the large number of grandparents who currently provide substantial amounts of childcare to grandchildren choose to extend their own working lives?

COTA believes in advancing the right, interests and future of all Australians as they age. We believe that ageing is a time of possibility, opportunity and influence. People’s rights should not diminish as they age, and they have the opportunity to continue to work and contribute to society in as many and varied ways as they see possible.