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This report draws upon recent discussions concerning employment and
unemployment among older people. During 2007, the NSW Office for Ageing, in
co-operation with the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing,
commissioned a research group from the University of Newcastle to conduct a series
of focus groups which would address these topics. There were, in all, nine groups,
covering white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, two CALD groups (one Greek,
one Vietnamese), and one group of Indigenous persons. Most of the participants had
left the paid labour force, but some were still employed.

In October, the NSW state government organised a two-day forum entitled Ageing
Most of the discussions took place in a series of working groups, and I have drawn
upon the report of the working group concerned with employment.

Although both sources of information relate primarily to NSW, much of the material
deriving from them has wide applicability, and I have emphasised those issues which,
in my view, would be equally valid and important in Victoria.

Labour Force Trends

All advanced industrialised countries are confronted with the challenges associated
with ageing populations and ageing labour forces. Consequently, the issue of labour
force participation by mature age workers has attracted increasing attention in the past
20-30 years, especially as those born in the peak years of the baby boom (1946-65)
are now moving into their 60s. Since the late 1990s, there has been increasing
emphasis by Australian governments on the need to retain older workers in the labour
force, especially given the prospect of declining numbers of school leavers entering
the labour market as a result of a low birthrate. In an oft-quoted calculation, the
Retirement Income Modelling Group of the Australian Treasury estimated in 1999
that whereas the population in gainful employment was growing by approximately
170,000 persons per year, the projected growth for the entire decade 2020-2030
would be no more than 125,000.

Decline in labour force participation (LFPR) is compounded by the persistence of
„early‟ retirement (i.e. around 60). A survey of retirement patterns by the ABS in
1997 found that the average age at which people left paid employment fell between
1960 and 1995, by four years for men and five years for women. In the early 1990s,
71 per cent of men left paid employment between the ages of 45 and 64, and 53 per
cent between 55 and 64. For women, the corresponding figures were 43 per cent
between 45 and 64, and 21 per cent between 45 and 64.

These trends have shifted since the mid-1990s. LFPR for men aged 55-64 rose from
60 per cent in 1997 to approximately 68 per cent in 2007. For women, the
corresponding figures were 35 per cent in 1997, rising to approximately 49 per cent in
2007. However, a report by the Department of Employment and Workplace
Relations (DEWR) in 2007 stresses that the rise in LFPR is largely attributable to the
ageing of the workforce. In addition, a significant factor in the steep rise in LFPR for
women is the raising of the pension age from 60 to 65, which has taken place in
successive steps since 1995. Two official reports in 2005 ---by the Productivity
Commission and the OECD--- noted that LFPR for persons aged 60 and over remains
low by international standards. The OECD report, in particular, found that, in 2003,
38 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women aged 60 were not in the labour force—
figures which are higher than the OECD average, and significantly higher than rates
in Japan, the USA and several of the Nordic countries. The report suggests that
Australia „can do better‟.

Focus Group Findings

The focus groups provide evidence of attitudes and intentions regarding continued
labour force participation, retirement, voluntary activity, and related issues..

N.B. The terms „blue-collar and „white collar‟ were used by the research team.
There are obvious difficulties with this traditional dichotomy, but it avoids
unnecessary complications in this case.

Continued Workforce Participation. There was a clear split between the blue-collar
and professional groups. One Blue Collar participant described his ideal work
pattern as a „five day weekend‟. Another observed that „the ideal strategy for work
or whatever is to be retired, or perhaps working two to three days a week‟. Other
participants pointed to the need to distinguish between manual and non-manual work.
“John Howard said a while ago that ideally people should work till they‟re 70, and
that‟s all right when you‟re sitting in an office punching the computer.....The
government‟s got to make a distinction between those people and people who are
doing physical work. They shouldn‟t penalise the people who have done physical
work and have to retire because of injury. I‟m going to the chiropractor every
fortnight, just so I can come to work to pay the chiropractor to fix my back”.

Other Blue Collar participants ascribed their continuance in employment to the need
for income, especially to support their families. One woman was supporting her
daughter, who was a single parent, and needed assistance to care for her teenage
children. “I‟m running from one place to another trying to fit in classes and work

There were several references to part-time employment as the preferred „model of
work‟. “Part-time work is the way the government needs to go. France has job
sharing and it works really well, so I think the Australian government should take a
leaf out of other countries and have a look at job sharing and part time, family
friendly work:”
By contrast, the two professional groups exhibited much more positive attitudes. A
number of participants stressed the need to remain mentally and physically active. “I
need to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to have something to do and
something to think about. I‟m just scared that if I retire I‟ll just become a vegetable,
and that scares the hell out of me‟. Another speaker who was working in the catering
industry observed that experience was valued. „because they know we‟ve got the
ability to sell product, to satisfy customers and get repeat business ..different
employers tell us that they can increase their sales by 100 per cent by having us on
 Speakers in both professional groups emphasised the importance of training
opportunities in preparing for post-retirement activities. “I‟m going to full time study
at TAFE, doing Certificate IV clothing production as a transition, and then hopefully
to some self employed part time work”. A former school principal described her
preparation for a new career after retiring at 55. “At 50 I started to look at all the
implications of superannuation and the different ways in which I could receive
remuneration....I kept on talking up my retirement until people got sick of hearing
about it....but that was one of the ways in which I could commit myself....I‟m a career
coach now, and I often talk to people in their 40s and 50s about changing to part time
work or going to get another job....I see a vast array of people in different situations
and it reminds me that most people have no idea how to make that transition”.

Other members of the professional groups referred to the problem of depression.
“What I see happen a lot is the severe depression that people can sink into
immediately they retire, and mostly it‟s to do with the fact that they‟ve lost their
identity because so much of their personality is tied up with what they do for a
living......I think it‟s an imperative for the government to be more responsive to
this...look at the appalling statistics about mental health”.

In general, the two professional groups showed a high degree of concern with the
importance of continuing in some form of employment (including self-employment),
preferably on a part time basis. For the blue collar groups, retirement from
employment was seen much more as a welcome transition, and they were much more
concerned with the adequacy of pensions and services for older people. It may also
be noted that, apart from the off-hand comment on working until 70, there were no
references to Commonwealth incentive schemes such as the Pension Bonus Scheme
(introduced 1997) and the Tax Offset Scheme (introduced 2004).

Progressive retirement

There was considerable support for the idea of phased retirement. One of the
professional group participants described the difficulties created by sudden exit from
the full time workforce. “I believe that we should all be presented with opportunities
to drop back from five days a week to four, to three, to two, to one and progressively
leave the workforce...instead of retiring from a full time job, quite often into
nothingness”. A similar point was made by a speaker who argued that the term
„retirement‟ should be dispensed with. “I don‟t like the word retirement, it has
connotations of having stopped or given up...It should be seen as a point where you
make life changes, and move to a more casual, flexible way of working”.
The need for advice about progressive retirement was stressed by several blue collar
participants. One of them described his disappointment with a seminar on transition
out of the workforce. “They should have given him a lesson in how to speak...he
bamboozled everybody, and in the end all the people there could say was that they got
nothing out of it but a nice sandwich”.


There was general approval for the value of voluntary activity post-retirement. Most
of the discussion at the Vietnamese focus group was concerned with the importance
of voluntary work and its significance for maintaining communal bonds. In one of
the professional groups, members contributed examples of voluntary work in
hospitals and nursing homes. “When one of my friends was in hospital I got
nicknamed the matron, because when I went in to visit I was tidying people‟s beds
and getting water for them, since the nurses were so busy”.

Another speaker described his work for a voluntary organisation which made a point
of visiting nursing homes. “One of the most rewarding things I have ever done was
to go to a nursing home and take out all the patients that had never had a visitor for 12
months or more....We took them on a minibus to a picnic spot, and our children mixed
with the older people. The enjoyment the old people got out of that exercise was

The importance of intergenerational contact was emphasised by another speaker in the
group. “I started a grandparents‟ group at the local primary school back in 1991.
We asked the teachers to choose the children who don‟t have grandparents, and we
recruited people from the local bowling club who would spend an hour or so, one on
one. A number of the children were from single parent families and it was really
good for them to have that contact. It‟s still going, apparently”.

Several speakers also noted the importance of educating the public about the value of
voluntary work. “They can do it one day a week, or one day a month. Older people
can be a fantastic resource for younger people, passing on their knowledge and

The focus groups confirm the results of research which indicates that volunteering is
more popular among people from professional and business backgrounds, and less
popular among persons from blue-collar backgrounds. This is the finding of three
national surveys by the ABS (1995, 2000, and 2006) . Although the peak years for
voluntary activity are between ages 35 to 44, there is another peak between ages 55
and 70. The 1995 survey found that 25 per cent of volunteers were aged 55 and over,
and 12 per cent of people over 70 were still active volunteers. These percentages
have changed only slightly over the 11-year period, although the latest survey
showed a rise among persons aged 75 and over. The role of voluntary activity is only
likely to increase through positive governmental encouragement.

Other Issues

Several speakers in the blue collar groups complained about lack of recognition for
previous experience (known in the educational system as RPL—recognition of
previous learning). “I‟ve been doing clerical work for 40 years but I don‟t have one
bit of paper to say I‟m qualified. ..a job came up with the company that runs caravan
parks, and if I couldn‟t do it, no one could, but you needed a degree—one of the
essential criteria was a business degree”. Another speaker reported that he had been
doing horticultural work for seven years, but when he applied for another job in
horticulture he was told that he needed a Level IV horticultural certificate. “I was
fobbed off from human resources to management, from management back to human
resources, back and forward. So now I‟ve got to go back to TAFE to learn how to do
the job I‟ve been doing for seven years”.
A second complaint from blue-collar participants related to lack of advice about post-
retirement possibilities. “Apart from Centrelink, there‟s no agency you can seek help
from. I asked a bloke in my bank a couple of years ago, and he advised me where I
should invest, but he said that was his own opinion and not advice from the bank”.

There were also reports of age discrimination. One blue-collar speaker reported a
case of discrimination by Centrelink against a 40-year-old woman. Professionals
also complained about age discrimination in both private and public sectors.
“Companies claim that they don‟t discriminate because of age, but it‟s a common
thing in most companies that all else being equal they go for youth. I can‟t quite
understand it because they‟re losing experience”.

One speaker alleged that age discrimination was rife in government departments,
despite denials. Another one described “examples of restructuring older people out,
so you redesign the system so the older person‟s jobs are no longer there....it was
happening quite regularly in local government and State government.....I found it
offensive that the best way to get rid of someone is not to tell them they‟re to old, you
just take their job from under them”.

Recommendations from the Ageing 2030 Forum

The issues described above also received attention at the 2030 Forum, and led to a
series of recommendations for action by both government and the private sector.
They included the following :

* Building capability and work ability throughout the life course, through reskilling,
recognition of prior learning (RPL), increased use of outreach programs like those
operated by TAFE, training courses for volunteers, and encouragement of lifelong

* Public-private partnerships, including brokerage services to put employers in touch
with potential employees;

* Special attention to disadvantaged groups, including older women, underemployed
workers, Indigenous persons, the disabled, and CALD persons suffering from cultural
and linguistic difficulties;
* Government to lead by example by encouraging older workers to stay on, and
ensuring that age discrimination is not practised by government agencies. (It may be
noted here that a program to encourage retention, codenamed SAGE, is operating in a
number of NSW government agencies);

* Measures to encourage volunteering.

Apart from these specific proposals, there were the usual concerns with age
stereotyping and the need to educate the public, and employers in particular, about
the value of older workers, and the encouragement of flexible work arrangements.


15 November 2007

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