When I reached 50 in 2010, I remember suddenly seeing advertisements on television informing me that I was eligible for a whole range of new products – they were aimed at people like me! I found this quite confronting, as I certainly didn’t think of myself as ‘old’ or a senior. I had an eight-year-old son and an interesting career, which ironically focused on the aged-care industry. Now, aged 55 and employed with a teenage son who is still living at home, I am even more aware of the challenges facing the over-50 crowd.
On average, a person turning 50 today has at least another 25 years where they could be engaged in work, both paid and voluntary. Government policy is also shifting, and the retirement age has increased from 65 to 67 for both men and women. The upside of this is that we are all living longer and healthier lives. The downside is that this potential does not appear to have captured the imagination of employers and the wider community.
This needs to change.
Susan Ryan, Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner, has spoken about the reluctance of employers to employ people over 50. Ryan is a passionate advocate for the rights of older people in the workplace. People have made complaints to the Human Rights Commission that illustrate the challenges older workers face:
“People being told they can’t undertake training that would be necessary for promotion or even to maintain their position because their employer thinks they’re too old or they won’t get their money’s worth investing in their training.”
She also argues that, economically, it makes sense to abandon these ageist views. The Australian Human Rights Commission undertook research that found a three per cent increase in workforce participation amongst workers aged 55 and over could contribute $33 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product. She suggests that it is important for people who are approaching 50 to undertake “a systematic check-up on their career prospects while they are still in employment.”
A career check-up
Ryan suggests that people approaching 50 conduct a ‘check-up’ on their career. Older workers should consider the following questions:
- Can I do this job for the next 20 years?
- Will I be able to?
- Do I want to?
- Have I got the physical strength to?
- If I need to change what is available to me?
- How do I find another job?
HR departments could use this simple checklist to begin to support workers to think about future career options – seeing this as a partnership between the worker and the organisation. This check-up would allow a conversation to take place about the needs of the worker and the needs of the organisation.
Stefan Theil writing in Newsweek highlights research undertaken by Birgit Verwonk from Dresden University:
“The way companies tend to be organized is also to blame. Companies often put new hires fresh out of college on their most innovative projects, while making older workers do routine jobs with existing systems, says Verwonk. Also, too few companies spend enough on continuous training to keep their employees’ expertise up to date. But workers themselves are at fault as well. Many older workers coast into premature obsolescence instead of keeping their skills current. In the European Union, for example, only 30 percent of employees over 55 participate in any kind of job-related training, compared to 50 percent of their younger colleagues.”
The landscape of work for ‘older people’ is undergoing a revolution at the policy level, community level and for the individual. Arbitrary numbers have their place, but we need to be aware that we might have to do more when it comes to negotiating the pact between the individual, the organisation and indeed the state. Organisations need to rethink what the workplace can offer people over 55.
Ralph Hampson is an academic and subject co-ordinator of the Master of Ageing program at the University of Melbourne.