The changing world of work – what it means for our ageing demographic

My article published by Open Forum explores whether it is going to be realistic for most people to keep working into their later years given the changes in the world of work in train. One of the ironies is that new technologies are not making working life easier – they are used to make it harder. But funding cut backs and tight business practices mean that many workers are under a lot of pressure.

Click here to see article.    And here for a 2013 article on productive ageing. 

The new article is copied here where the links are highlighted.


The world of work is changing – what hopes for ‘productive ageing’?

As we are well aware the population of Australia is ageing so there are many concerns about the cost of health care and income support that this entails. There are concerns also about the reduction of available workers with ever more people in retirement although this effect is less clear with predictions of job losses in the not too distant future due to new technologies.

‘Productive ageing’ provides something of an appeasement for these anxieties through offering up the ageing population as economically contributing citizens in their later years to take the burden off younger, working age generations.

But the 2016 report of the Australian Human Rights Commission paints a pretty bleak picture of current levels of age discrimination in the workforce.  It reports that more than a quarter of Australians 50 and over have had a recent experience of age discrimination.

For all the desires and needs of older people (and younger people) to keep working for longer, and to be less of a burden, there is at present not much real encouragement for them to do so. Can this outlook on older workers change in the future? I suggest a few reasons why it may not.

The nub of the matter is that work is getting harder not easier. It is not that it is becoming more dangerous or requires more heavy lifting. The problem is that many workers across many industries and occupations have to work more intensively according to tough performance criteria. This is combined with many occupations affected by funding cut backs so that staff have to work harder to fill gaps.

We see reports of nurses and midwives burned-out and overworked, and similar reports for teachers. Professor Michael Marmot, a leading world expert on health inequality, in his 2016 Boyer lectures discusses how high work demands are so damaging to health. He relates the case of a man working in a warehouse where he wore a device that monitored his output.

I have also interviewed people working in administrative jobs, call centres, and factories in similar circumstances, constantly under surveillance and monitored for their output.  If they fall behind their jobs are terminated as was the case of the man that Marmot interviewed. For example, one participant in my research working in an admin job told me:

We were monitored on an hourly basis against performance benchmarks and if we did not reach them you would receive an email so there was a lot of pressure. They were always watching over you. There were productivity bonuses for the office, they called it team work, but it was a real pressure cooker. In 9 years the individual benchmarks were doubled. Most people really struggled on a daily basis to make it.

New technologies not only replace workers but also serve to extract more productivity from those workers left behind. These are hardly the conditions that will make it very easy for many people to continue on working well into their later years. A few may be able to do it where they have a lot of control over how they do their work or if they have exceptionally rare skills.

But there are few occupations that are immune. It is a very competitive workforce by any measure and it is hard see that it will get less competitive in the decades to come as a result of the application of new technologies. The workforce will not easily accommodate the large numbers of older workers that the ‘productive ageing’ remit recommends.

Moreover, there is another factor that potentially overrides the aspiration of ‘productive ageing’  in the medium to long term. There has been much concern about the offshoring of jobs, especially manual manufacturing jobs to low wage countries such as China and India. This came through as key factor in the election of Donald Trump in the recent US elections.

But there is also tremendous potential for offshoring of ‘knowledge’ jobs. And this is very easy through the application of digital technologies. Software development and web design can just as easily happen in Mumbai as Melbourne or Sydney or Silicon Valley – and it does. But other forms of knowledge and service work can also be offshored where there is no need for person to person contact. This can cover legal documentation  and analysis of Medical Resonance Imaging scans. In addition, knowledge work can be offshored through online labour markets, such as Upwork (formerly Elance and Odesk) discussed in my article for the Conversation.

The world of work is undergoing rapid change so it is not much good propounding an idea about productive ageing without full understanding the implication of these changes. Only then can we get to a point of a realistic and fair idea about the economic contributions of an ageing workforce.


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