The age pension isn’t the issue

The recent debate about whether Australia should or shouldn’t raise the age pension is important, but it isn’t the debate we should be having. The real problem is that more and more people in their 50s, 60s and 70s want to work but are not able to find jobs which keep them engaged and interested. This is the critical issue which we need to address as a nation.

Work is an important part of your overall health

We know that, for many people, work plays an important role in their overall wellbeing, even if they don’t realise it. At Full Time Lives we have interviewed hundreds of people in various stages of transition away from full-time work and one theme which comes up again and again is how often people underestimate the value they derive from their jobs.

Work gives many people a sense of purpose and meaning, which is being increasingly recognised as crucial to living a long and happy life. Work also keeps your brain active and improves your social health through the connections and community it brings. While, as they age, many people want to reduce hours they work, the benefits that work brings never go away.

Age discrimination is a real problem

The difficulty we have is that finding meaningful work gets harder and harder for most people as they get older. A study published by the University of South Australia last year found that ⅓ of people experienced age discrimination while working or looking for work last year. This is a shockingly high figure, made even more startling by the fact that it can start as young as 45.

In its 2016 report, Willing to Work, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one-third of people who experienced age discrimination while looking for work gave up looking. This is one of the main contributing factors behind Australia’s poor workforce participation for people over 50, despite improvements over the past few years. Our close neighbour New Zealand has a much higher workforce participation rate with nearly 20% of over 65s in work, compared to Australia’s 12.9%.

So what can we do about this? Thankfully, many things.

  • It’s difficult, but we need to start by changing the narrative around older people. Ditch the untrue and harmful stereotypes and recognise the benefits older people bring to the workplace. On top of their obvious experience, in general older people have better people skills, are in better control of their emotions, have better vocabularies and other kinds of ‘crystallised intelligence’ and are better judges of risk and reward.

  • Make sure people continue to receive training and development opportunities throughout their careers. Too often managers think their older employees are not able or don’t want to learn. In fact people’s ability to learn remains much the same throughout their lives and most people never lose the desire to learn and grow.

  • Offer more flexibility in roles. Older people often want to reduce their working hours, especially if they are comfortable financially or are building up other interests as they transition to retirement.

  • Look to other countries for lessons on how to engage, motivate and celebrate our mature citizens. Why not start with our neighbour New Zealand, with its high mature workforce participation, Denmark, which invests in its citizens to retrain in new professions, irrespective of age, or Japan, with its rapidly ageing population and wholehearted embrace of the ‘100 year life’.

  • Place greater value and recognition, as a society, on volunteer work and other forms of unpaid work like caring, grandparenting, sports coaching and many other roles which add value to society. This would encourage more people to take on this work and increase the sense of value and achievement they feel when they do.

  • Embrace the sharing and gig economies while putting in place regulation to ensure people aren’t taken advantage of. The flexibility and opportunities these platforms bring have amazing potential for expanding our workforce and connecting people with opportunities, but we need to ensure they do not detract from the hard-fought and important rights and responsibilities of the traditional employer/employee relationship.

While the problem in Australia isn’t as urgent as it is in some other countries, our higher migration and compulsory superannuation means we spend less on pensions per capita than many similar countries, expanding and engaging our older workforce remains an urgent issue with so many good reasons for solving. If we had a greater percentage of older people engaged in meaningful work, this would benefit everyone. Our country would see increased economic growth, decreased medical costs and happier, healthier people with better overall wellbeing.

Surely that’s something worth striving for?

Jake Waddell