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Eight steps to help older Australians continue in the workplace

By Russ Grayson - posted Tuesday, 9 March 2004

Canberra's recently-released Employment for Mature Age Workers Issues paper has been welcomed as a step in the right direction. Now the government needs to engage in a little educational and legislative activity to ensure it works.

It is an axiom of system dynamics that you cannot make a change to one part of a system without creating change elsewhere. The government's hope is that by amending the conditions of access to superannuation and encouraging a part-time retirement, part-time work lifestyle productivity will be increased and there will be less call on federal funds for pensions and medical care. Whether this eventuates, remains to be seen because tinkering with systems can produce unanticipated results.

Many older workers, particularly those in less interesting jobs, look forward to retirement and see it as a release. But for others there is much that is attractive in the government's new policy. Some of them do not want to retire and look forward with distaste to the prospect of being forced from their work. It offers those with little by way of superannuation the chance to accumulate extra savings. Importantly, the policy provides the opportunity for continued meaningful participation in life and feeds a sense of self-worth and self-esteem that can so easily be lost with retirement. For some people, their work is a means of self-identification, of defining who they are. This is as important to older workers as it is to the younger.


The policy seems to have more appeal to the skilled and better-educated older worker, those who have had a career in an interesting field. But is it of value to the less-skilled and to those in repetitious or uninteresting, boring jobs? That is questionable unless money is the prime motivator. It is this segment of the workforce that is the least likely to find attraction in a longer working life. Who, despite the promise of extra money, wants even more drudgery?

The same could be said of those in physically or mentally demanding work such as nurses and nurses’ aides. They might not want to continue after retirement age.

Neither might many casual workers, those who make up a little less than a third of the Australian workforce. Like those in boring jobs, casual workers who are frequently in and out of work are less likely to want to continue that way beyond retirement age. It should be recognised, however, that many casual workers prefer that mode of work because its flexibility suits their needs. There is no requirement that casual jobs be boring.

Making it Work

The new policy will stimulate workplace and social change. It will also generate friction when needed changes in workplace practice and attitude are resisted by employers or younger workers. How and where this will happen is unknown at present; however some areas can be anticipated. Now that it has instigated the change, it is the proper role of government to address these issues.

Here are eight initiatives that government, trade unions and professional bodies can take to make working after retirement age attractive to Australia's older workers.

1. Fight age discrimination.

It might be illegal but there can be no denying that older workers face difficulty in finding employment.


Younger workers can be the source of this difficulty through their ignorance of and assumptions about older workers. Some see older workers, with their experience, as a threat to their positions. Others harbour erroneous assumptions.

Dealing with this is difficult as it is almost impossible to prove discrimination on the basis of age, yet older workers seeking employment will be aware that discrimination exists. What is needed is a couple of high-profile cases where employers and managers are prosecuted for age discrimination and also a campaign of awareness about the consequences of discrimination.

2. Improve the skills and update the knowledge of older workers.

It is an assumption that the knowledge and skills of older workers are outdated. This is surely true at times but, like many assumptions, it is partly grounded in ignorance.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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Employment for Mature Age Workers Issues paper
Office for an Ageing Australia
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