Over 55s wanted again?

Yesterday, Treasurer Wayne Swan launched a report on older workers. The occasion was an Australian Human Rights Commission conference and the report was produced by Deloitte Access Economics. Titled Increasing participation among older workers: The grey army advances, the report states that a 2.4 per cent increase in GDP could be achieved by a five per cent increase in participation by over-55-year-old workers. This would equal $48 billion extra GDP over the next 12-13 years.

Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan, is reported as saying:

“This is the secret to our future prosperity …if we are forcing people out of the workforce before they are ready to go, it’s extremely bad news for them in terms of their quality of life, but it’s also bad news for the economy.”

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Why would you bother to employ an older person?

Maybe I’m becoming too cynical, but when I saw the headlines and then read the detail in the Grey Army Advances report, I just wanted to punch the wall.

After years and years of work place discrimination and an unhealthy eagerness to shed older workers each time things went pear-shaped, suddenly this cohort is not just needed, but essential for a boost in our GDP.

Commissioning a report on older workers and their participation is a good idea. Calling it The Grey Army Advances is simply appalling. When the Human Rights Commission is supposed to be leading the charge in stamping out discrimination, why oh why does it label everyone 55 and over as ‘grey’? Our 69-year-old Age Discrimination Commissioner does not have grey hair – so why would the millions of Australians in their 50s necessarily do so? Discrimination starts with words and pictures and this report reinforces age discrimination by its name alone.

Even forgetting the language of the report, there is a horribly cynical attitude towards the value of older workers. Suddenly they are of high value and should shoulder the burden of the need for an increase in productivity. But, apart from the obvious age discrimination, there are many and varied reasons why older Australians leave the workforce. The primary one is health – many are simply not well enough to continue to work full time. Another reason is care-giving – many women in particular leave work to look after ageing relatives. And yet another is exhaustion. After 40 years in the workforce, some workers simply need a break. More research needs to be done on why we leave the workforce and how more flexible arrangements might entice us back. People work for many reasons; economic necessity, self esteem, the satisfaction of using our skills, the desire to belong to a ‘tribe’. Teasing out these reasons and the real needs of older workers might help us create a workplace which is more inclusive of all generations. But first we need to get the words right. Let’s dump the term ‘grey army’ once and for all. And one more thing. Speaking on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters this morning, Commissioner Ryan continually referred to older workers as ‘them’. Can we understand this is about us, and all own the challenge of worker participation, so we can all share the rewards of a properly functioning multi-generational workplace?

What about you?

Do you mind being referred to as part of the ‘grey army’?
Is this a reasonable term for older workers?

Written by Kaye Fallick