The facts about Australia’s ageing workforce

When it comes to intergenerational battles, there’s none more raucous than the one between baby boomers and those who followed. The former, having benefited from free higher education and affordable housing, rankle those for whom the Great Australian Dream and a ‘job for life’ have all but vanished.

But there’s an even bigger challenge for the post-boomers: Australia’s ageing population.

More people are leaving the workforce than entering it and that means less money received in income tax to help pay retiree benefits. By 2050, the number of people older than 65 is expected to be almost 23 per cent of the population, up from 13.5 per cent in 2010, according to projections by the Federal Treasury. That will leave just 2.7 workers to support each retiree, compared with about five workers in 2010.

In response to this shift, the previous government increased the eligibility age for the means-tested Aged Pension, which means people born after 1 July 1952 will need to work an additional two years (from 65 to 67 years) before they can access the pension.

While many older Australians want to stay in the workforce past retirement age, and some need to, their desire for appropriate and adequate employment is often hindered by prevailing cultural stereotypes.

What’s age got to do with it?

It is illegal to discriminate based on age, but a 2010 report from the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed an increase in complaints of ‘ageism’ among older workers that spanned “everything from recruitment to their terms and conditions of employment”.

A big issue – and one that affects both older people themselves and recruiters – is the way older people are portrayed in the media.

The word ‘ageing’ may be part of the problem, according to another AHRC survey, which found the word has “predominantly negative connotations, particularly among younger people”. The survey also finds “negative employer attitudes”, with one in 10 business respondents saying they will not recruit above the age of 50.

That negativity affects both older men and women, but the situation is particularly bad for females.

Only 54.9 per cent of women aged 55-64 are in the workforce, the Diversity Council of Australia has reported. That’s less than Sweden (72 per cent), New Zealand (69.8 per cent) and the US (59.5 per cent).

Ignoring that talent pool is hurting productivity. Australia’s GDP would have been 4 per cent higher if its rate of workforce participation for women in the age group was the same as New Zealand, the Council reported.

Creating equity

Keeping older Australians in the workforce should be a no-brainer. It’s good for them, it’s good for business and it’s good for the economy. The first step is for businesses rethink their approach to recruitment to ensure more diversity in all areas.

The Australian National Training Authority says recruitment, promotion and retention should be based on competence, not age. It also recommends flexible work options to attract older workers who may need time off to care for ageing family members.

There’s no time to waste. Age discrimination is effectively barring a large, knowledgeable and willing cohort from being productive members of the workforce and the economy. Unless that changes, intergenerational spats will be the least of our worries.

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