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Grey expectations, or a silver lining? The challenges facing older workers

Australians from skilled trades or professions are the most likely to find a niche in the ageing workforce. Nurse image from

Welcome to Shades of Grey, a series from The Conversation that examines the challenges posed by Australia’s ageing workforce. Today, Adjunct Associate Professor Margaret Patrickson from the University of South Australia takes a look at the underlying desires and expectations of our older workers.

Though much has been written about the issues that arise from workforce ageing, there is still not enough information about which older people might desire to work into their seventies or beyond — let alone whether they might actually have the opportunity to do so.

Since the turn of this century, both politicians and social analysts have consistently encouraged older people to remain in the workforce. The OECD has been especially vocal in this regard, even though there is little evidence to suggest these desires are being reflected in increasing opportunities for older people to work.

Lengthening life expectancy and consequent projected rising demands for pension income to support those no longer working underpin much of this rhetoric. Australian experience, however, indicates that unless older people have scarce sought-after skills or would be prepared to work either part time or accept power paid positions their options may be limited.

Those most likely either to seek a job — or find themselves a suitable niche in the workforce — tend to come either from skilled trades or professions, where skill shortages have forced employers to look outside their traditional hiring base. They include medical practitioners, plumbers, hairdressers, tilers, nurses, retail assistants, pharmacists and accountants.

They fall into two sub-groups. The first consists of skilled professionals who seek opportunities to continue to apply and utilise their skills, often on a part time or contract basis, and who gain significant personal satisfaction from making a contribution and feeling valued. This group contains a number of individuals who have previously reached high levels of expertise in their chosen profession, who command high salaries for their expertise and are often attributed with possessing high levels of wisdom and experience.

A second sub-group consists mainly of those who seek additional income to support their lifestyle, and this group often has to accept unpopular hours, shift work, frequently a less skilled job than an earlier full time role, and often lower pay. Those outside these two groups — and this would appear the larger group of older people — tend not to seek paid work as they either have enough to live on or else have not yet reached the level in their profession where they can command premium incomes and respect. Alternatively, their skills may be outdated and they do not wish to outlay funds to maintain their skill levels.

Members of this latter group frequently occupy the ranks of voluntary workers in our community and perform roles on which our economy relies on their unpaid input. Many of them see retirement as an opportunity for finding personal fulfilment and exploring new pursuits not previously open to them while they were working.

Opportunities where older workers might actually find work are far fewer than those seeking work and tend to be found in the peripheral workforce especially where labour scarcity or skill scarcity prevails. They tend to lie outside traditional full-time employment with larger organisations or within the public sector. A few vacancies exist in health, personal services, or in the building industry, where SMEs may frequently be more adaptable and flexible in their hiring practices.

One recent survey of employers by Guest and Schacklock indicates that older workers — though seen as experienced, loyal, dependable, hard working and reliable — are at the same time not viewed as creative, aggressive or willing to learn or change. Whether or not an individual might succeed in securing work depends on a combination of push and pull factors. Push factors include the non-availability of full time work, failing health, downsizing, relocation or similar. Pull factors include income augmentation, skill utilisation, opportunities for new skill acquisition, social interaction and possibly working from home.

Resolving these competing demands provides challenges that differ significantly between individuals largely as a consequence of differences in skill, occupation, family circumstances, location and personal attitudes to flexibility. It may be difficult to generalise or develop a one size fits all approach to the issue.

There are, however, several matters that have arisen from the investigations into the circumstances older workers face and how they react to them.

First of all, many older individuals would not welcome being made feel they need to work after they turn 65. Rather, they may see this time in their life as an opportunity to explore alternatives other than working. Secondly, unless their work-related skills are up to date, their opportunities are likely to be less than they enjoyed when working full time and many do not want to have to outlay their own funds to maintain skill levels. Thirdly, finding an employer willing to hire them even for other than contract, casual or part time work may be challenging and they would need to pursue this option vigorously for success. Nonetheless, opportunities may arise in SMEs or through personal recommendations.

Read more in the series:

It’s time to redefine the traditional working age

Retirement: a trigger for distress or welcome relief from the rat race?

Older workers may be our economic salvation – or a pipeline to poverty

There’s no silver bullet solution to Australia’s ageing workforce

Active ageing is a risky labour market strategy

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