Our Prime Minister’s 1950's ideal of the stay-at-home mum won’t take us to a prosperous future. A recently released report by the Productivity Commission has again confirmed this. Not only are women needed at work while they are raising children, but they are also needed at work later on in life.
Australia is passing through a demographic transition and our population is ageing. While this is a worldwide trend, Australia’s rate of population ageing is slow compared to other countries. The Productivity Commission estimates that in 2050 23.9 per cent of Australians will be aged 65 years or older compared with 12.3 per cent in 2000. However, countries like Japan, Italy, Greece and Switzerland will have a proportion of older people that is approximately 10 per cent higher than Australia’s. Increases in fertility and migration are being considered as having little impact on this trend.
At present, labour participation falls drastically for those over 55 years, and very few people over 70 years are still in the workforce. The Productivity Commission argues as more people move into these older groups, outflows from the labour force are likely to quicken and the overall labour participation rate will fall. This ageing effect is only partly offset by young people joining the workforce, due to low past fertility rates. It is also partly offset by a continuing trend for higher female participation at most ages. Therefore, a “labour supply problem” is in sight.
The good news from this report is that population ageing does not currently represent a crisis, and nor does Australia face a pension crisis either, in contrast to a number of other OECD countries.
Raising labour force participation is one of the measures suggested by the Productivity Commission. Australia’s Federal Treasurer agrees. This is what Mr Costello said in a recent interview given to the ABC:
Well, we've got to first of all encourage as many people as possible to participate in the workforce - that is, people who are mature workers, those over 55 - they've got to be encouraged to stay in the workforce. People who drop out of the workforce perhaps because they have an injury at work, have got to be encouraged to return. Parents whose children are of schooling age should be encouraged to participate in the workforce.
What would encourage women to stay on longer in the workforce?
My research found that for women of the baby boom generation (i.e., those born between 1946 and 1964), the work-life balance is all important. The vast majority of women who participated in the research stressed the importance of achieving a balance in life, and asserted they were only prepared to continue working at an older age if a balance could be achieved between work and other areas of their lives, such as family, friends, study, volunteering and time for themselves.
Some women visualised a post-materialist future and a more ethical society, suggesting spirituality and environmental sustainability as additional elements of a balanced life. Many women commented on their plans to study, learn new skills or change career in future years. They emphasised the need for lifelong learning and free education and training if people were expected to prolong their working lives. However, these were women with a high level of formal education and secure employment in professional and managerial roles. Those less skilled and in more tenuous employment made it clear that retirement can’t come early enough.
Clearly, not everybody will want or be able to stay on in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement age. Will we have a choice in the future? Will the economic pressures foreshadowed in the Productivity Commission’s report work in the favour of women - and men - to create more space in our lives for pursuits other than paid work? Or will women, as history has repeatedly shown, be used as a reserve army of labour, pushed into or out of the workforce depending on the needs of business and the economy?
The call for a better work - life balance is not new. Many books have been written on this topic and a Google search for “work life balance” comes up with more than 25 million entries. In particular during the last two years, the work-life balance has been much discussed in the media with examples given of downshifting and sea changes.
A better work-life balance would benefit women and men of all ages, and it might encourage older workers to stay on in the workforce. Businesses that have introduced more flexible work practices and allowed employees to combine work with other responsibilities have been rewarded with increased productivity, lower absenteeism and better retention rates.
The meaning of the term work-life balance varies between different people, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. It is also a very complex matter that needs to be tackled at different levels. As I have outlined in a previous article for On Line Opinion, issues such as changes in the workplace, equality at work, recognition for unpaid community and caring work, opportunities for life-long learning, complexity and inequities of the superannuation system, and planning for retirement have to be considered if we want to encourage women of the baby boom generation to stay on in the workforce.
The baby boomers will reinvent retirement, and for most women the new model of retirement won’t mean either full-time leisure or full-time work. With the right incentives, women’s working lives can be extended to the benefit of the individual and the community. But it has to come about by choice.