Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan talks to AHRI’s Sandra Cormack about what is happening, and what needs to happen, to make the most of an ageing workforce.
Sandra Cormack: You’ve been Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner since July 2011. What achievements in that time are you most proud of?
Susan Ryan: I’m pleased to have put older workers and the value they bring on the agenda with employers, recruiters and government. There’s no doubt the issue is better understood and identified than when I started.
There are signs of change at all levels of employment, particularly in the big corporations and public sector.
SC: You speak about the longevity revolution and its impact on Australia. How do we deal with it more effectively?
SR: The increase in longevity has happened so quickly that many of our policies, be it in employment, insurance or welfare, don’t take into account the fact that many Australians will live into their 90s.
We’ve had the revolution because the people are with us, but we haven’t had the revolution in how we’re going to support ourselves for these extra years; what’s the employer’s role, what’s the individual’s role. I’m keen to see individuals ask themselves at 50 whether they’re in the right place, given they’ll probably be working for another 20 years. We all need to think about it more practically to generate quicker outcomes.
SC: You’ve also spoken about an intergenerational compact to avert a crisis. What is that about?
SR: Through all of the past century we had a population structure such that people of working age, which used to be 15-65, produced enough tax revenue for the government to provide for people in their retirement. That compact has to be rethought because, with the changes in longevity, plus the lower birth rate, we’re not seeing enough people of working age coming into the workforce to support the huge increase in people over 65.
The new compact has to be a longer working life for older people so they’re not requiring public support at such an early age. We also have to look at the needs of younger workers, in particular the unemployed. What can we do to ensure they get started in the workforce?
SC: You recently said that, if Australians are to be expected to work beyond 70, we have to change the workplace. What fundamental changes are required?
SR: Employers need to factor in reassessments of their mature workers. If they have workers in their early 50s, the employer has to engage in asking questions like: Are these people going to be able to contribute to our business until they’re 70? Do they need their job redesigned? Do they need to move to a different part of the business? Do they need more training?
Some older workers may require flexibility in the number of hours or days worked, and I think some employers worry about the productivity impact of agreeing that people can work a shorter day or week. But smart employers can work that out.
We’re not saying people should be paid the same if they’re working less. But you may have some people in their 60s who are very capable, but want to transition to a three-day week and, of course, have their remuneration restructured to reflect that change.
Employers should look at how they can incorporate this flexibility in a way that is good for business. Many employers have quite successful flexible employment for women returning to work from maternity leave, and a lot of the lessons here can be transferred to older workers as well.
I have to keep congratulating Telstra CEO David Thodey for announcing that all jobs at Telstra are up for flexible negotiations, including his. That was a very important leadership statement and I hope others will think that, if Telstra can do it, we can do it too.
SC: What kinds of bias do older workers experience?
SR: One thing that comes up in surveys a lot is that many employers believe a person over 50 isn’t able to learn new things, particularly relating to new technology.
I can quote you endless medical research about the brain, and psychological research about people’s adaptability, to show that this belief is wrong. But it’s still there, and it’s a very damaging prejudice.
The other concern is the idea that older workers won’t fit into a younger team. I’m sure there are examples where this has been the case, but that’s where we need the skills of our HR people to make teams work.
I think the benefits to government, let alone the individual, would be huge because it would be redirecting this older workforce to something productive rather than having them go on Newstart, then getting criticised for it.
It’s a win-win approach, and I’ve had early discussions with the government and opposition because this should be a bipartisan thing.
SC: What vision do you have for Australia in 2030 and beyond, regarding older people at work?
SR: My vision is that, by then, people will work as long as they want to and are able to. For most people that will mean working up until 70. But they’ll be working in areas where they’re really productive because they have the appropriate skills and experience, or they’ve been able to re-skill themselves. I think they’ll also be working more flexibly.
AHRI’s report on older Australians at work will be available mid-February 2015 on the AHRI website.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the February 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Age of change’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.