Better solutions needed for older workers

| September 23, 2016

The question of pension affordability comes up every so often in the political debate. Russ Grayson addresses some of the issues around raising the retirement age and offers solutions.

When governments create a moral panic over their imagined difficulty in paying pensions as liveable income to retired workers, they once again place ideology over possibility. The ideology is that of neoliberalism with its liking of austerity… for some of the population anyway.

The issue of pension affordability seems to come up every so often, in Australia at least, and so far it has been too much of a political hot potato for politicians to hold onto. Pollies sound off, economic pundits and academics pontificate from the security of their highly-paid and tenured positions, people get defensive and older workers feel like pariahs. The government’s argument further loses credibility when politicians make claims for a rise in their own already-excessive pensions, a lot of money for doing nothing when they retire, in reality.

Raising the retirement age is one of government’s solutions that has already been implemented. This might be ok with those who have been involuntarily retired but it exacerbates issues that we will shortly get to.


Some older workers look forward to their retirement. Others do not. They like their work; yet, come retirement age, they are suddenly shut out. This can produce a sense of dislocation and it can be psychologically as well as physically significant for the involuntarily retired. They feel lost. Their sense of contribution and self-esteem can plummet and they feel useless.

Add to this government pointing its accusing finger at pensioners and positioning them as a financial burden on taxpayers and you find the familiar government tactic of creating folk devils — individuals and groups government claims to be the cause of a problem they had nothing to do with creating. This can only increase the mental distress of people whose age discriminates against their finding work as well as those living on the pension.

The fortunate few, mostly those who have been self-employed, might continue their work past retirement age. You find few of those whose work had been of the outdoors, physical kind among their number because their bodies have become tired and the workplace injuries of earlier years can reduce their ability to work on into later life.


One problem with government’s raising the retirement age is that older workers find difficulty in gaining employment. This is especially so when they have been out of the workforce for some time because of the need to care for their own parents or for relatives with health issues no longer capable of looking after themselves.

As others have commented, what you are likely to end up with is a lot of older workers living on unemployment benefits rather than the pension and having to participate in various government make-work schemes until they reach retirement age. This, obviously, is a waste of skill and knowledge from which society could benefit.


A range of reasons lie behind the supposed lack of employability of older workers.

Discrimination by younger managers and businesspeople is one of these. Common beliefs held by this coterie include the belief that the skills and knowledge of older workers is outdated. We must recognise that this is sometimes true but it is far from universally so. What older workers have is the experiential wisdom gained from years in the field that younger management and their staff lack.

Where the belief is true, management is unlikely to fund retraining as the onus on education has now been transferred from employer and government to the individual. The problem is that, unless there is government financial support to retrain, older workers may lack the financial capacity to pay for their retraining. Tertiary education is a business and to participate in that market requires the financial wherewithal. It’s a viscous circle — inability to retrain implies lack of up-to-date skills and knowledge, and that in turn implies difficulty in finding employment, and that in turn can mean years living off unemployment allowance.

If younger management do not employ older workers then they should not complain that too much of their tax goes to paying pensions and government benefits — paying, in effect, for the problems their attitudes help in creating.


Another barrier to the employability of older workers is that they will not fit into the workplace culture with younger staff.

Yet, experience suggests this is a furphy. I have seen older workers harmoniously employed alongside younger in a number of workplaces. It is perhaps the image that people spin around particular industries, especially those in the digital economy, that they are for a younger demographic that has much to do with this. That’s about perception. Yet, many of those older workers experienced directly the evolution of workplace computerisation and many of them worked in it, lending them a sense of history and a perspective probably missing among younger employees.

There is another workplace culture factor operating here, too. I don’t recall who it was, but someone in the know wrote that business hires younger rather than older workers because the younger are cheap labour.


Then there is the belief that older workers’ health is worse than younger workers and they will need time off for medical reasons. Medical issues might limit what they do.

This is one of those barriers that is not universally true but is true in individual cases. It is also one of things that must be accepted by employers as part of the government’s raising the retirement age. Government, too, needs to acknowledge that raising the retirement age calls for different working arrangements for older workers on account of health issues.

Older workers might need time off for medical treatment. Their intensity of work might be less than that of younger people. Existing injuries or conditions might limit their capacity to work. These things might mean lower productivity — that is another objective factor in raising the retirement age — however they are the realities of life that younger management and staff are one day going to have to deal with personally.

Wear and tear on the body, especially for those whose life has been in physical work, perhaps outdoors, is another limiting factor influencing whether older workers can continue working additional years. I was told by a landscape gardener that he is only in early middle age but the work has already taken its toll of his body and he feels like he won’t be able to do it for all that much longer. He had to turn down a job because of this. With no other skills to call upon, how will he fare with the later retirement age? Does the government expect him to continue in his work and risk injury? This is another of those sticky problems that come with simplistic government policy.


We have looked at some of the issues around raising the retirement age and paying pensions. But what about solutions?

The Australian government has had a scheme of paying employers for hiring older workers and this is a good start though it is one of those things liable to being discontinued when government seeks to further reduce spending.

Given the singularity of the issue perhaps more imaginative initiatives could be developed that are both perceptual and innovative.

What if government engaged in a long-running media campaign to position the public perception around older workers as experienced, knowledgeable and valuable to employers?

What if they combined this with simplifying and reducing the cost of creating worker cooperatives of older workers with complementary skills? Tax and financial incentives could be part of this as would legal assistance.

What about identifying the types of work older workers can do — not menial work, but work that calls upon their skills and experience? This might be less physical types of work for those whose working life has been manual or has involved hard labour.

Another initiative would be for government to pay older workers to do work within the not-for-profit sector. This could help support community services and would suit people seeking part-time work. It could pay for work presently done voluntarily and would work best where it paid proper wages for the work done. A government insurance scheme covering people working in the not-for-profit community sector would also help here.

I don’t hold much hope of government starting any scheme that requires imagination. Their track record for doing that is negligible. All too often we find simple solutions being thrown at complex problems like pensions and the situation of older workers.

Government policy on retirement and pensions is usually made in ignorance or in deliberate avoidance of the many issues it creates. Seeking to reduce expenditure, politicians put off for another government at another time the problems they create.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    October 6, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Paid work in the not-for-profit sector

    I am an older worker who has been sharing my expertise in the computer field with others of a similar age in the local U3A's. I enjoy the work and must admit that I have learned more in the last 15 years than I ever did in the programming/analysis field. Working with volunteers is very different from working with paid employees. For all their interest, one cannot rely completely on the volunteers and must always be ready to have someone step in at short notice. The idea of the government paying retired people to do this work appeals – it would mean that we could spread our wings a bit more; not having to have people in reserve. It might also tempt a few others into the field. We are lucky in that we have 120 classes offering a very wide variety of interesting courses. Different U3A's have different expertise to draw on but there are always people who have had interesting lives and who could share their acquired expertise. Congratulations. That is a very well thought out blog. Thanks.