By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Australians are living and working longer, according to the latest data from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing.  People over the age of 55 account for approximately 25% of the population and 16% of the total workforce.   

This is the fastest growing segment of the Australian population and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, yet Australia ranks only 13th among OECD countries in employment of people aged 55-64.  And this is an issue, for individual wellbeing, for the labour market, and for the economy. 

It will cost us all 

The Regional Australia Institute recently warned the government that lack of employment opportunities for older Australians, particularly in our regional areas, could negatively impact economic growth and increase the strain on public resources.  

There are some obvious economic consequences of an ageing population with limited job opportunities, such as decreasing number of tax payers and increasing aged pension costs, but it doesn’t stop there. Employment is key to a person’s wellbeing – not just their hip pocket, but also their feelings of self-worth. Long-term unemployment increases depression and other mental health issues, and this cost is passed on to our public health system. 

The cost isn’t just financial either.  By reducing the ability of older Australians to actively contribute to our workforce, we are losing untold amounts of experience – specialised industry experience, life experience and skills developed over an extended period in the workforce, such as problem solving and critical thinking.

Additionally, more workers create more demand and a stronger economy, which in turn leads to more jobs, so by marginalising mature-aged workers we are essentially disregarding a quarter of the population, and we all stand to lose. 

Employers can realise the benefits

There is an abundance of research out there that tells us that diversity in a workforce pays off for a business.  It increases innovation and enables businesses to connect with a multigenerational customer base, it keeps employees more engaged and the culture more positive.  A diverse, multigenerational workforce is a source of competitive advantage

Yet, according to a Human Rights Commission report, 27% of older Australians reported feeling discriminated against in the workplace and a third of those gave up looking for work as a result. There are two misconceptions about older Australians in the workforce that I hear often, and, in my opinion, play a significant role in age discrimination in our job market.   

Employers can feel that mature-aged employees are a cost, not an investment, e.g.  They’ll leave me after a few years to retire, so anything I spend in training or development is wasted”.   The reality is that Gen Z employees will likely leave in less than two years, and take those skills to another organisation. Compare this to the Baby Boomer generation who typically stay for 6+ years, and you’ll see that your older team members are likely to remain committed for a longer period, potentially right up to retirement.   

The other misconception is that mature-aged workers can’t adapt or learn new skills, but in fact, they typically have more resilience and can navigate uncertain times much better. In my own experience working in the employment industry, I have always found mature-aged job seekers eager to learn new skills, adaptable and keen to succeed in the workplace. 

Building confidence is important

What can be an issue for mature-aged workers is confidence, particularly following a redundancy.  Programs like Career Transition Assistance, a government backed program to help those over 55 to re-enter the workforce, are designed to turn that around.

These programs give mature-aged workers the confidence to re-join the labour market.  Participants build skills and increase their digital literacy, but also learn how to translate their existing skill bases into a digital world.  Older Australians can bring a wealth of experience and strong skillsets but often report feeling like these skills aren’t needed in today’s workplaces.  It’s about reframing these skills, so that both the individual and employers can see their potential. 

Small changes make a big difference 

To realise this potential, there are a few things employers can do to make the workplace more age-friendly. 

Mentoring programs are a fantastic way to harness the experience of mature-aged employees and create an inclusive workplace.  I’ve talked before about how mentoring has a positive impact on young people and engaging older employees to mentor them can prove a win/win.

As with any employee, providing continuous learning and training opportunities is key to engagement and this is no different for mature-aged employees. Part time and flexible opportunities can be great for older Australians too, and can be utilised as part of a phased retirement plan. Other changes are subtler and tend to apply when fostering any sort of diversity, such as embracing different communication styles to give everyone airtime.  

Engaging more mature-aged Australians is a must for individuals, employers and the Australian economy. There are around 85,000 older Australians currently looking for work, offering a wealth of experience and strong skills – if we can realise their potential, everyone will benefit.