Ita Buttrose is hard to pin down for an interview. Australian of the Year for 2013, she is also national president of Alzheimer’s Australia and has an itinerary that takes her around the country on the professional speaking circuit.
On top of this, she has somehow found time to start hosting a new morning show on Channel Ten. A pin-up for the older generation, Buttrose insists “retirement is not on my agenda – or in my vocabulary. Staying in work for as long as possible is what keeps people vital and healthy – and is very good for your mind because our brains like to be challenged.
At 71, the grande dame of the media world is in a position that many of her fellow septuagenarians would envy: employed and valued for what they do. She sounds indignant when she talks about how the talents of older Australians are being underestimated and under-used – at a time when skills and experience are in decline.
According to the Treasury, in the next decade the number of working-age people is projected to decline sharply as Australia’s 5.5 million baby boomers reach retirement age. At the same time, the number of younger workers entering the labour market is diminishing.
Giving up work
Given the shortfall and the fact that people are living longer and staying active and healthy into their sixties and seventies, do all those older workers really want to give up work?
“Today, many baby boomers either don’t want to retire because of the stimulation and social aspect of their work, or they can’t afford to retire,” says Buttrose.
In her experience, Buttrose says mature workers often have business skills that are less tangible but are essential to effective communication and cooperation.
Buttrose describes how the employment landscape has changed dramatically since she began work at 15 with Consolidated Press. “There were all ages working there then, in their 20s through to their 50s, and we all worked harmoniously together. As a young employee, you respected older people for their knowledge and experience. Now young people tend to think they know it all – look, we all do when we’re young. But you can always learn. I’m still learning.”
Challenging the prejudices and changing the biases that undermine older people will be crucial if we are going to keep them in work, says Buttrose. But it’s no easy task when stereotypes are so entrenched. Surveys by National Seniors Australia, OECD, Business 86 per cent of baby boomers are unprepared financially for retirement. Like Buttrose, those older people who aren’t forced into retirement are hanging on to their jobs for longer. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the number of Australians older than 65 who are in work has doubled from 12 per cent compared with 6 per cent in 2002.
With skills shortages looming ever larger, surely companies are bending over backwards to hang on to experienced employees or actively trying to recruit them back into the workforce? Not so, says Buttrose. “Age discrimination is now worse than it’s ever been. Today someone over 45 can be considered too old and thrown on the scrapheap.
A firm believer in the value of lifelong training, not just for older people but the wider workforce, Buttrose thinks the government has its priorities wrong. “I would prefer to see more investment in training rather than in sport, for example. Even athletes will need to do another job once they retire.
If older people are to be encouraged and supported to stay on in work, there must be leadership on this issue from the top, says Buttrose.
Tackling age discrimination and getting more women into top positions and on boards are linked ambitions, suggests Buttrose. “Aged care will continue to be an issue, particularly for mature women who are more likely to be in the role of caring for children or aged parents. That’s why employers must be prepared to offer greater flexibility,” says Buttrose.
Buttrose thinks companies can start changing attitudes by putting their older workers on a pedestal and singling out their achievements.
Buttrose points out that there is one area of work where older people are readily employed. “Grandparents are the largest provider of unpaid childcare in Australia, yet if you took them out of the equation, all the young people would be out of a job.
“Young people are happy for their parents to mind their children, yet if their mother or father turned up for a job interview in their workplace, more than likely they’d be considered too old.”