Retirement at 65 is becoming less and less likely for many. Can internship programs help keep older workers active and sharing their skills?
The other night, I watched The Intern, a 2015 movie starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. For those who haven’t seen it, De Niro plays a 70-year-old retired executive who, after discovering that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, applies for an older workers intern program with a booming startup online fashion company run by Hathaway’s character.
Although initially frozen out by Hathaway, De Niro quickly makes an impression on co-workers with his diligent approach and impeccable dress sense in an office otherwise full of ripped-jeans millennials.
De Niro is eventually noticed by Hathaway, who takes him on as her personal intern, helping her to manage her hectic workload and keep things in perspective. He also becomes somewhat of a father figure to some of the younger workers. It’s a warm and fuzzy drama and well-worth watching, but it also strikes a chord.
Australia is grappling with an ageing population, coupled with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Most people can expect to live to 80, and soon 25 per cent of our population will be aged over 65. This raises a few important issues: Will 40-year retirements become the norm? Will retirees get bored? And how much value can older workers add to the workplaces of the future?
Regrettably, it seems most workplaces struggle to see the value of older workers. The situation was apparently so bad that the government introduced the ‘Restart Programme’ in 2014, where businesses could receive wage subsidies of up to $10,000 for taking on workers aged over 50.
Most Aussies love a discount, right? Well, regrettably, the response to the Restart Programme was disappointing. Recent reports indicate that fewer than 3,000 people have been involved in the scheme so far, falling well short of the 32,000 the government was hoping for.
So what about an elderly intern program for bored retirees like De Niro? Would such a scheme be legal? And could it help to change people’s attitudes toward older workers?
The law on unpaid labour in Australia is relatively complex, unfortunately, and many workplaces are still struggling to draw the line between valid internships and unlawful underpayment of employees.
The Fair Work Act requires businesses to pay workers the relevant minimum wage unless the work is undertaken as part of a recognised vocational placement or the person is a volunteer.
In the context of an elderly internship program, which is not part of a recognised education or training course, the older workers would need to be ‘volunteers’ in the sense that they are participating in the internship primarily for their own benefit and are not required or expected to perform productive work. Even then, such an arrangement would bring with it a degree of legal exposure to the business unless it was a not-for-profit.
Could an elderly internship program help change attitudes? Possibly, but that will obviously depend on people’s own experiences. If the elderly intern is helpful like De Niro, it will likely have a positive impact on dispelling the stereotypes. But if they turn out to be a nightmare, it will likely only reinforce those stereotypes.
All in all, the concept might well have some merit, but such a program would need to be confined to retirees who are not looking for paid work and have no desire to return to paid work, but rather want to give something back by mentoring younger workers and sharing their wisdom acquired over long and successful careers in the workforce.
For the time being, however, I suspect it’s likely to remain confined to the movie screens.