Workforce ageing

I have written a range of reports and papers on ageing in relation to the workforce.  While at Council on the Ageing (Australia) between 1996 and 2004, I was a key advocate on ageing workforce and older worker issues.

I ran a government funded program for older workers in 2002 and 2003 to provide information and advice about the changing nature of the labour market. I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2002 to study some of the responses to ageing workforce issues in the USA and Europe.

What emerged from the body of work I undertook in this era, was a concern that the ‘precarisation’ of the labour market was having a particularly dire effect on people over 45. I subsequently chose this subject for my doctoral thesis.

Following research undertaken for Melbourne Citymission on Women, welfare and low paid work I decided to focus the doctoral research on midlife women.

This isn’t to say that midlife men do not also experience a range of problems in relation to precarious employment especially as contracting out and casualisation besets many industry sectors which were traditionally safe havens of secure employment. As my articles below point out, it can be very hard for both men and women to keep working to older ages in physically and mentally demanding occupations. The articles also critique that hoary old chestnut of ‘productive ageing’.  They raise questions about a retirement incomes policy that assumes a universal capacity for people to keep working until near 70.

My work on ageing population issues has also encompassed health, aged care and community services  and of course, retirement incomes.

Recent articles in:

The Conversation

VSheen ABC Drum article  

Open Forum (article copied below)

Productive ageing – please explain!

Productive ageing is, in its way, a strange idea, linking the normal process of growing old with being productive – whatever that means.

From what I understand, productive ageing asserts the rights and capacities of older people to take their place as equals with younger people in society and the workforce. So, in part it is about social inclusion. It breaks down traditional ideas of ‘retirement’ at a specified age.

Productive ageing also serves to defuse the demographic time bomb when all those health, aged care, and pension costs are on course for sending the country broke, and ruining the prospects of younger generations. (See Commonwealth Government Intergenerational Reports). It promises that older people will be productive and contributing, not a burden.

But what exactly does ‘productive’ mean for older people? My reading is that ‘productive’ is mainly associated with workforce participation and has a strong economic focus.

Where does that leave the legions of older people whose main focus in later life is elsewhere – for example, in caring for grandchildren, partners, a disabled adult child? And what if you have a disability as an older adult and face constraints to your activity? What is your position within the ‘productive ageing’ paradigm? What is counted as a productive activity, and who decides if it is, and under what circumstances?

Older people, like everyone else, constitute a diverse group, so another conundrum relates to who exactly should be productive and active. If people are financially well off, are they permitted to be inactive – enjoying their lives doing what they wish – and generally being ‘unproductive’? Or is it only those who have had fewer opportunities for wealth accumulation in their earlier decades who should be productive and active when they are older- so they are not a ‘burden’?

But perhaps these people have had hard working lives and can’t continue with it when they are older. Perhaps they are women who have raised families and find themselves alone and impoverished in later life. What does productive ageing mean for them? In my research on midlife women in precarious work, it meant hard labour at a time of life when, in my view, they should have been accorded some appropriate social benefits (a full pension) and the opportunity to find a suitable occupation if they choose.

The people who are most likely to fit the ‘productive ageing’ mould are likely to be those already employed in an interesting, well paid, and flexible occupation doing much as they please. Such a working life is undoubtedly conducive to health and wellbeing, as well as productivity, but may be very difficult for many people to achieve in view of the long term erosion in the availability of decent jobs.

I can see that productive or active ageing could help to make population ageing and older people a more palatable proposition especially in view of the impending impact on national budgets. And in a society where there is a high premium placed on youth and youthfulness, it makes older people look like they might be worth keeping on – especially if they don’t cost much.

But productive ageing has the potential to set up significant divisions amongst the older population and in relation to younger generations, while fostering new forms of social exclusion.

It conveys an excessively simplistic and narrow vision for the aged population and older people. Surely, older people of present and future generations deserve a better overarching idea about ageing than just on how ‘productive’ they are, perhaps embodying values of complexity, difference, care, choice, diversity, individuality, community, interrelatedness, creativity, wisdom…

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