Older jobseekers falling through the cracks in 'silent crisis'

Not even the deadly threat of cancer was enough to keep Louise from going to work each day.

Diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer, she kept going to work unaware another threat to her career was on the horizon.

“I worked most of the time through that health scare, including through eight rounds of chemotherapy, and was able to work because of the support of my work and also the support of my family,” she said.

“But that was pretty tough and that went into early 2020 as well. And then, of course, the pandemic hit us.”

Louise has been looking for a new job since August, when her 12-month contract in a management position was not renewed due to a COVID-related downturn.

She does not want her surname used in case it affects her chances of finding work. She also worries her age is making it more difficult.

“At 55, I come with a wealth of experience but I’ve also got an old face, and since going through chemotherapy treatment I’ve now got a nice ‘silver fox’ hairdo or whatever the female equivalent of that is,” she said.

“So I’m conscious of ageing. I mean, I had a Zoom interview the other day and I kind of was conscious about how I was going to look on video so I put on a bright shirt, I didn’t wear my glasses, I made sure I had quite a bit of make-up on, without being scary.”

While Louise feels fortunate to have the security of already owning her own home, she has a new perspective on how quickly circumstances can change for others.

She has come to embody a generation of workers, many of whom are women, finding themselves out of work before they planned to retire.

“Somebody can go through the experience that I have, you know a fairly significant cancer diagnosis and treatment, which is very expensive as well, and losing a job,” she said.

“And that’s sort of one or two steps away from homelessness.”

Labor MP urges his own party to improve on policy ‘failures’

Federal shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones believes older Australians who find themselves out of work before becoming eligible for the Age Pension are being failed by a system that feels “stacked against them”.

He has called on his own side of politics to take a more coordinated approach to the needs of people aged between 55 and 64 in areas such as employment, superannuation and housing.

“We’ve got this silent crisis going on in policy for older workers, and it seems to be invisible, and our policy responses are inadequate,” he said.

“Absolutely the government isn’t focused on it, but I’m arguing that Labor also needs to focus on it and bring all of those areas of policy together to focus on this need of older Australians.”

Mr Jones said older women faced particular challenges because they typically earned less money than men and were more likely to take time off work to raise children and care for relatives.

And he warned ignoring the entire demographic risked creating a large group of “politically disaffected” voters who were “ripe for political exploitation”.

A man in a tie addresses Parliament
Labor’s Stephen Jones says his party’s strategies for helping older unemployed people are “inadequate”.(ABC News)

“We need to rethink the rhetoric, we need to rethink our stereotypes,” he said.

“And if we don’t, we risk the same sort of backlash and the same sort of extremist response that we’ve seen in other countries around the world here in Australia.”

Older Australians being forced into involuntary retirement

A recent review of Australia’s retirement income system found that before the pandemic, almost one in five Australians between the ages of 55 and 64 were receiving either JobSeeker, the Carer Payment or the Disability Support Pension.

It also found unemployed older Australians usually took much longer to find a new job than younger job seekers and people with lower wealth and education levels were more likely to be forced into early retirement.

“The main reasons for involuntary retirements are own ill health, caring responsibilities and job-related issues such as a reluctance to hire older workers – ageism,” it said.

“The high prevalence of involuntary retirement means many Australians retire abruptly and with fewer savings than planned. This runs counter to policies that seek to encourage older workforce participation.”

Blonde woman in jacket sternly looks to her right.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is adamant older jobseekers have not been neglected. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

Employment minister Michaelia Cash denied older job seekers were being ignored, arguing the government had introduced measures like the Restart wage subsidy for businesses that hired people over the age of 50.

She also pointed to programs helping older jobseekers to upskill in areas such as digital literacy.

“The extensive supports already in place for this age group are flexible enough to respond to the challenges created by the pandemic,” a spokesman for the minister said.

“Employment of mature-age Australians (aged 55 years and over) fell sharply in the early months of the pandemic, but is now showing encouraging signs of recovery.”

Mature job seekers urge employers to give them a chance

Eva, 62, says she has applied for hundreds of jobs since being made redundant in 2015 but has not been able to find steady work.

“It’s a little degrading because no-one is actually interested in what you can bring to a company as such,” she said.

“They don’t really ask what have you been doing previously, what kind of areas have you worked in. They just kind of said, ‘Well it has been a long time since you’ve been working in that area.'”

She currently receives the JobSeeker payment and while the coronavirus supplement has helped during the pandemic, she is nervous about what will happen when it runs out next month.

“I would have to juggle the bills, the quarterly bills, as well as the mortgage, and after that there is food,” she said.

“So I would probably have to go to Foodbank to get some proper food.”

Eva says employers can get a lot from older workers if they are willing to give them a go.

“It’s not only life experience, it’s the skills they gathered throughout their working life,” she said.

“I would love it if employers would change their attitude a little bit and give them a chance.”

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