Dec 17, 2019

Employers must do better to accommodate older workers


Australia’s ageing population means older people will have to remain in the workforce for longer to make up for the shrinking numbers who will be of traditional working age.

Within 30 years, it is expected that 22 per cent of the population will be over the age of 65. That compares with 15 per cent in 2017, and a mere 9 per cent in 1977.

One of the most serious consequences of an ageing population is that the ratio of those at or older than retirement age compared to those of working age will increase. In Australia, the rate is expected to increase from 20 per cent in 2010, to 39 per cent in 2050. As a consequence, the pool of people drawing on retirement benefits will increase, while the pool of workers who will fund it is declining.

In addition, it’s expected that there won’t be enough workers to fill the necessary roles, leading to skills shortages.

Organisations should be adapting now to make the workforce more accommodating for older people, but new research from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) reveals older people still often feel unwelcome in the workforce and little is being done structurally to accommodate them.

According to a report on the research, “insufficient attention is being given to ensuring the health, productivity and effective performance of the mature workforce.”

Engaging older people in work for longer will be an important driver of the economy, but it can also be helpful for successful ageing and older people’s wellbeing.

The survey

The researchers surveyed just over 2,000 workers who were between the ages of 18 and 81, and worked in a range of industries.

The results revealed that many organisations are failing to create an age-inclusive workplace, which means they are not making the most of the opportunities in the mature workforce. 

For example, 18 per cent of workers aged 55-64 years say the organisation discriminates on the basis of age in recruitment and selection. By comparison, only 12 per cent of younger workers have the same view.

And 39 per cent of workers aged 55-64 agree that ‘workers of all ages are not given training to maintain/upgrade their skills’, compared with 23 per cent of younger workers.

Only 45% of workers aged 55-64 said they had a “supportive leader” who valued employees’ contributions, far fewer than the 58 per cent for younger workers.

Interestingly, women tended to be slightly more positive than men on these ratings.

Youth aren’t woke to economics of ageing population

There appears to be a belief in the workplace that older people should retire and move on to make way for the next generation, which indicates a lack of understanding about the demographic and economic realities of an ageing population.

Workers in the 35-44 age bracket had the highest rate of agreement with the statement ‘older workers should retire to make way for the next generation’, with 47 per cent in agreement.

Older workers have higher rates of enjoyment

Mature workers seemed to have higher rates of enjoyment in their work. For example, 71 per cent of workers aged 65 and over said they work because they enjoy it or it gives them a sense of purpose compared with workers aged 45 and younger, of whom 46 per cent said they work because they enjoy it and 47 per cent said work gives them a sense of purpose.

Changing roles to suit mature workers

According to the study, benefits occur when workers aged 55 and over are given work practices such as flexible working arrangements, well-designed jobs and they are given the scope to balance work and care responsibilities. If workers are able to individualise their roles, they are less likely to plan to leave, more engaged, more satisfied with their lives and less likely to experience burnout.

However, older workers revealed employers were not offering individualised work arrangements. For example, almost two thirds (63 per cent) of workers aged 55-64 reported that their employer does not ‘offer phased retirement programs’, compared with 41 per cent of younger workers.

Similarly, 60 per cent of employees aged 55-64 said that there were ‘little to no opportunities to have their jobs redesigned or to transfer to a less strenuous job’, compared with 40 per cent of younger employees.

Age-friendly practices good for businesses and for staff

Keeping older workers employed for longer will be a vital plank in Australia’s strategy to combat its ageing population.

CEPAR Chief Investigator, Professor Sharon Parker, from Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute, said the new survey was intended to identify work policies and practices that support the engagement of mature workers.

“With age diversity projected to continue to increase in Australian organisations, creating an environment in which all employees feel valued and respected regardless of their age will become increasingly important. This will in turn benefit not only organisations as a whole, but also teams and individual employees,” Professor Parker said.

Flexibility around caring is fundamental

Professor Parker said both workers and employees will need to make changes to adapt to changing demographics.

“Retraining mature workers will be important to enable them to adapt to the changing work demands of an increasingly digital environment,” she said. 

“Also important is ensuring that mature workers’ jobs are redesigned to accommodate changes in their needs and preferences, such as reducing physical demands in manual jobs, or providing more opportunities for mentoring.”

The report’s co-author, Marian Baird, CEPAR Chief Investigator and Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney Business School, said flexibility around caring responsibilities was key.

“Supporting employees who are balancing care responsibilities is an important issue for organisational growth with an ageing workforce,” she said. 

“As our working population ages and organisations strive to retain mature workers, greater flexibility in working arrangements will become increasingly important to support mature workers.”

“As the mature workforce continues to grow, these options are likely to become a higher priority for mature job seekers and therefore provide a competitive advantage for organisations aiming to attract high performing employees,” Professor Baird said.

“Moving ahead, we hope this report will stimulate policymakers, CEOs, HR professionals, and other relevant stakeholders to better value the mature workforce, and to take active steps to design and implement age-friendly policies and practices.”


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