Older workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic have been acknowledged as one of the key groups facing long-term hardship – a likelihood foreshadowed in a University of New South Wales ‘roadmap to recovery’.
Policy responses must address the needs of the vulnerable groups in society that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, say UNSW business school’s Leisa Sargent and John Piggott.
“The first is young people who are starting in their careers and are now being tripped up,” said Prof. Piggott. “You start working at a professional organisation, and six months in or 18 months in, suddenly you’re on three days a week. That’s a really negative thing to experience early in your career.”
But another key group, he said, was workers in their 50s, or older.
“It’s reasonably common knowledge that if you are thrown out of employment at the age of 55, you’ve got much less chance of coming back into the labour force than you do if you’re younger … The rate of long-term unemployment is much higher for people above the age of 55,” he said.
That fact is substantiated by Grattan Institute research late last year into the demographics of those receiving the JobSeeker payment – previously known as Newstart.
The institute’s Owain Emslie and Danielle Wood researched the age profiles of those receiving Newstart and shattered the general belief that most were younger people.
“Newstart recipients are a lot older than you might think,” they wrote.
“Half are over 45. Partly this is because unemployed people aged 24 or younger are more likely to be getting Youth Allowance.
“But even if we include unemployed Youth Allowance recipients in the figure, an outsized 45 per cent of all unemployment benefit recipients are over 45. One quarter are over 55.
“Women on Newstart are older still: 51 per cent of female jobseekers are over 40, compared with 42 per cent of male job-seekers.”
The researchers found that over the five years to March 2019, the number of people on Newstart aged over 45 had swelled by one-fifth, and the number over 55 by two-fifths.
Prof. Piggott said the pandemic was exacerbating this trend and was likely to result in more people dropping out of the workforce altogether, retiring early and missing out on crucial years of superannuation and savings for retirement.
“Imagine you’re 55, the kids have just left, and you’re really looking forward to the next 10 years being the decade where you can save a lot … Now you’re out of work and will have exhausted your superannuation by the time you’re 65 or 66. You’ll be someone who lives the rest of their life on the Age Pension. That’s a very different life trajectory from the previous one,” he said.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) has also released research that shows older people and those without qualifications beyond secondary school are most at risk of long-term unemployment because of COVID-19.
BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the analysis showed that about 40 per cent of those people who lost their jobs were at risk of staying unemployed.
The research released in April showed that, of those who lost their jobs, 38.9 per cent were aged over 50 and 35.8 per cent were aged between 30 and 49. Only 25.3 per cent were in the 15 to 29-year bracket.
“We want to make sure that as part of our recovery we really target those high-risk people,” Ms Westacott said. “People who are over 55, people with low skills, and make sure that our skills system helps people get those new skills so they can get back into work.”
YourLifeChoices members offered the following sobering accounts of their experiences of seeking work at an older age.
“I never worked again after being made redundant at 57. I lost count of the jobs I applied for. But every one I didn’t get had nothing to do with my age, apparently!! This time there will be so many applicants for every job, let’s hope the pension will keep pace with the cost of living for those of us locked out of the workforce forever.”
“Being a fit, active and not ready for the box six foot under, I got speaking to my next door neighbour who holds a senior position in one of my local supermarkets. I asked her about applying for a position as a casual packer – positions they were wanting to fill. I could happily do that for a few hours a week. She seemed a bit reticent, but explained that I would not be considered. Not due to my age exactly, but because my age group (I’m 67) is classed as high risk, and they are permitted to select applicants based on risk of health exposure.”
“Employers take one look at my greying hair and run a mile. I even coloured my hair once. Never again. I love my mixture of grey and black hair. I shouldn’t have to colour my hair to get a job.”
“I am over 62 and have several health issues, though not able to qualify for a disability pension. I have been trying for several years to get back into the workforce to secure 15 hours work a week that I should be able to handle. I have found after hundreds of job applications that it is impossible to do that.”
But there is always the good news story.
“I consider myself to be extremely lucky. Not only have I still got a part-time job three days a week at 77 but my employer also arranged for me to work from home when this crisis started. It infuriates me when I see and hear of people being consigned to the scrapheap in their 50s-plus. There’s life (and value) in most of us well past that age bracket!”
Has the pandemic caused you to lose work? Are businesses getting better at recognising that older workers can be very valuable?
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