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Australia, along with the other developed economies, is grappling with the implications of an ageing population. Concerns about increasing welfare costs and shortfalls of labour supply have brought with them calls to prolong working lives. However, current public policy is inadequate if the nation wishes to make the best use of its ageing workforce. Present approaches to both public policy and advocacy have the potential to be harmful in terms of their response to age barriers in society. A piecemeal set of measures lacking legitimacy have emerged, with objectives that lack a road-map for how they will be achieved.
Age-based stereotypes (such as loyal, reliable, wise) are often used by older people’s advocates but recent research has shown that these stereotypes may be reinforcing already existing negative views of older workers among employers because these are not the traits they are primarily looking for in employees. This has potentially important implications for efforts to overcome age discrimination by employers. Not only are older workers being promoted in terms of qualities that employers are already more likely to ascribe to them, such qualities are given a lower weighting in terms of employment decisions that take account of productivity.
The push to extend working lives also has the potential to stigmatise those who retire from the paid workforce as no longer pulling their weight in a society where being retired is increasingly viewed as a kind of unemployment. What happens if governments remove one of the moral foundations of the welfare state – retirement – without there being a realistic alternative?
Compounding this situation is the rise of automation, which by 2031 may make up to two and a half million older workers redundant. Not only will they be out of work but their skills will be outdated. At the same time an approximately equal number of younger workers will also have been made redundant.
Taking a long view, the casualisation of Australia’s workforce may be a ticking time-bomb for tomorrow’s older workers. Older people who are presently finding it difficult to get back into the workforce 10 or 15 years before they can access retirement income may be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the big issues facing young people as they age in the ‘gig economy’.
This report attempts to offer a fresh approach, challenging the basis of the present advocacy on ageing and work. Against a background of apparent age inequality in the Australian labour market affecting both young and old, recent efforts aimed at overcoming barriers to older workers are considered and critiqued. The report offers a framework for developing public policy on age and work, proposing principles against which the legitimacy of actions should be tested.