It’s Time For A New Advocacy On Ageing And Work
Australia, along with the other developed economies, is grappling with the implications of having an ageing population. Concerns about increasing welfare costs and shortfalls of labour supply have brought with them efforts to prolong working lives. Many people want to work for as long as possible and much of Australian industry is already engaging with the issue of how to recruit and retain older workers. However, current advocacy and public policy are inadequate if the nation wishes to make the best use of its ageing workforce.
Present approaches to both public policy and advocacy have the potential to be harmful in terms of their response to age barriers in society. A piecemeal set of measures lacking legitimacy have emerged, with objectives that lack a road-map for how they will be achieved.
Advocacy is muddled. Age-based stereotypes (such as loyal, reliable, wise) are often used by older people’s advocates to promote the benefits of hiring older workers, but recent research has shown that these stereotypes may be reinforcing already existing negative views of older workers among employers because these are not the traits they are primarily looking for in employees. This has potentially important implications for efforts to overcome age discrimination by employers. Not only are older workers being promoted in terms of qualities that employers are already more likely to ascribe to them, such qualities are given a lower weighting in terms of employment decisions that take account of productivity.
The push to extend working lives also has the potential to stigmatise those who retire from the paid workforce as no longer pulling their weight in a society where being retired is increasingly viewed as a kind of unemployment. What happens if governments remove one of the moral foundations of the welfare state – retirement – without there being a realistic alternative as is the case for the many workers, for instance those in physically or emotionally demanding work, for whom longer work lives are unrealistic?
Compounding this situation is the rise of automation, which by 2031 may make up to two and a half million older workers redundant. Not only will they be out of work but their skills will be outdated. At the same time an approximately equal number of younger workers will also have been made redundant.
Taking a long view, the casualisation of Australia’s workforce may be a ticking time-bomb for tomorrow’s older workers. Older people who are presently finding it difficult to get back into the workforce 10 or 15 years before they can access retirement income may be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the big issues facing young people as they age in the ‘gig economy’.
Required is a fresh approach, challenging the basis of the present advocacy on ageing and work. Firstly, there is need for a life course perspective when considering the issue. At a time when we are being told not to expect to have jobs for life it is essential to consider what the changing nature of work will mean for tomorrow’s older workers.
Secondly, there is requirement to remove a tendency towards ageism from public policy and age advocacy. Somewhat ironically, age advocacy itself has been bedevilled by a notable tendency towards ageism, drawing, for instance, on age stereotypes in making the case for older labour. More insidiously perhaps, in the popular discourse and in some scholarly research there has been a tendency to consider young and old as somehow being in competition. Yet, as has been emphasised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, among others, the employment rates of old and young are generally in step. There is, thus, not an economic pie of finite size that must be distributed. Rather, both will benefit from efforts to promote their employment. The politics of generational conflict serves both poorly.
Finally, there is a need for a critical stance on the present public policy emphasis on prolonging working lives. While we are told that we should expect to work longer this will be no easy task for many groups of workers.
Recent Australian public policy concerned with workforce ageing has been limited in scope and is inadequate if the nation is to make the most of its ageing population, and if many more people are to work to 70 or beyond. What is required is a suite of actions aimed at promoting older people’s participation in its broadest sense, encompassing, for instance, active leisure, vocational and non-vocational learning, volunteering and paid work, underpinned by the provision of welfare payments that are not attached to onerous reciprocal obligations for those with limited employment prospects.