Business Response to Australia’s Ageing Workforce

The Sydney Morning Herald

By Katie Lahey
Chief Executive
Business Council of Australia

Business must confront the economic and social challenges associated with the population ageing sooner rather than later. Supporting higher levels of workforce participation, particularly of mature-aged people, is an important step in dealing effectively with the demographic challenges facing us.

We must challenge the entrenched lifecycle mindset that sees a one-way path from full-time education to full-time work to full-time retirement. This is at the heart of the cultural change that needs to underpin the measures announced by the Treasurer yesterday.

To respond effectively to the challenges presented by an ageing population, we must bring about a shift in attitudes towards older workers similar to that achieved towards working women.

There needs to be greater recognition of the benefits mature-aged workers bring to a workforce. This means tackling inaccurate and negative stereotypes.

It is also about recognising that the labour pool is shrinking and that our customer base is ageing. As a result, business needs to attract and retain a greater percentage of older Australians, both to maintain a skilled and experienced workforce and to better match customers with customer service.

Changing the attitudes of those doing the hiring and firing, though, is not enough. Driving cultural change throughout an organisation will mean that mature-aged workers are valued and provided with ongoing opportunities for training, skill development and interesting careers.

However, supporting higher participation is a shared responsibility. Individuals also need to better understand the benefits of staying at work financially and in terms of broader wellbeing and the need to maintain and improve their skills and employability over time.

From a financial perspective, individuals are far better off staying in the workforce even for only a couple of extra years. Staying in the workforce for an extra two years can extend the life of your superannuation savings by seven years. This is because your retirement saving continues to grow rather than being eaten into.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) was pleased to see the focus given to the relationship between skills and labour force participation in the Treasurer's discussion paper. Education and training is the council's top policy priority. Mature-age workers who maintain and develop skills that will keep them competitive in the labour market have the most to gain.

While the focus on raising mature-age participation in the workforce is important, encouraging participation across the entire population compounds the benefits. From our perspective, this means ensuring younger Australians complete 12 years of education or the equivalent in other forms of training. It means supporting life-long learning. And it means helping individuals recognise that they cannot disengage from the workplace and avoid training and new job challenges.

Relative to our economic peers, workforce participation rates are low in Australia. This is particularly evident for those who are 55 and over.

Increasing participation will help Australia sustain strong economic growth and fund high-quality health and aged-care services. For individuals, staying in the workforce can help finance a high quality of life in retirement, and contribute to emotional and physical well-being.

There are real disincentives and barriers to ongoing participation. Against this backdrop Costello's superannuation policy announcements, and the support from Opposition parties, are welcome.

The proposed changes will help provide the flexibility needed to match people's choices and plans, particularly those looking to phase down their work before retirement and those choosing to continue to work and contribute to superannuation beyond age 65. However, the issues around the participation of mature-aged workers are more complicated than this.

In Australia we like to adopt a rosy interpretation of early exit from the labour force these are the workers choosing to retire and head down the coast. However, the reality is that older people can be discouraged from an ongoing job search and they are sometimes discriminated against.

It is also clear that there is a culture of early retirement in Australia, with the vast majority of people indicating they intend to retire from full-time work before they are 65.

Because Australians are living longer, this means people are planning on spending longer periods out of employment. Unfortunately, these intentions do not match well with the financial realities at the individual or economy-wide level.