Your rights in the workplace

Old stereotypes die hard. And none die harder than the cliché of the old fogey worker. In the past older workers were the first to go during a credit squeeze. But many organisations have learnt that the depth of knowledge and hard-won experience mature workers possess can be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Now that the ‘dream’ of full-time retirement has been revealed as a myth, many workers are planning on working into their 60s, 70s and beyond.

Your workplace rights
Although it may not feel like it, should you be the sole applicant aged over 50 in the office of a junior headhunter, sweating over your chances of being hired, there have been major advances in the past few years when it comes to the rights of older workers.

There is no statutory retirement age in Australia. The Age Pension is currently offered to males at age 65 and females aged 55 to 63, depending upon birth year (although this will increase to 67 by 2023). An important piece of legislation of direct benefit to older workers was quietly introduced late in 2008. This relates to the Age Discrimination Act, ACT 2004 and effectively widens the Act by the removal of the ‘dominant reason’ test. This means that a person need only show that their age was one of the reasons they were discriminated against. This will harmonise the Act with other federal unlawful discrimination laws. It will hopefully also mean that job applicants will no longer have to sing and dance to prove that they can fit in with a youthful workplace culture.

There are many other safeguards for older workers which cover getting a job, terms and conditions, training, promotion, dismissal and redundancy although voluntary work and domestic duties in private households are not as well protected. Fairer legislation is a help, but it can’t change society’s attitudes overnight. It is difficult to redress decades of ageist negativism in the workplace, and so it is helpful for mature workers to arm themselves with some of the following facts before fronting up for an interview or selection process.

In reality, older workers:

    • Are just as productive as younger workers
    • Are not more costly than younger workers
    • Use experience to offset any decline in cognitive ability
    • Are quite capable of learning new skills
    • Perform just as well as younger workers
    • Are interested in career and self-development
    • Are often more flexible than younger workers
    • Contribute to a diversified workplace culture
    • Do not necessarily want to retire

Flexibility rules
Research conducted earlier this year by Ken Dytchwald of Age Wave in United States confirms that 60 per cent of Baby Boomers see retirement as a time, not of leisure or rest (only 20% thought this), but as a time for new purpose, new priorities, new careers and a new opportunity to give back.

So for those who feel that they still have a lot to give, the stars appear to be aligning. Particularly when we consider the key changes in the way we work – where work is moving from the full-time, five days a week job toward a series of customised assignments which allow for a more individualised approach including negotiation of time and place. With appropriate technology, these work commitments can often be met on-site, off-site, during the day or during the night. This increasing flexibility in the shape and delivery of work suits well the desire of older workers to work fewer hours in a more flexible manner. The fewer/more flexible model also better matches the well-documented desire of older workers to give back, to volunteer, and to spend more time with family and friends.

And the catch is?
Just as there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, nor is there a dream flexi assignment waiting for you to leave full-time work and claim it. Whilst it is becoming much more common to renegotiate a role which involves a five-day week into one including telecommuting or a nine-day fortnight, or similar, the catch is that to revamp your work experience you will need to revamp your thinking about how you will engage with the new world of work. It’s all very well to become excited at the notion of being one of a network of specialists collaborating and sharing expertise online. But if you aren’t prepared to stay abreast of new technologies this is hardly going to happen.

In fact the need to stay up to date with technology is a much stiffer requirement than just being aware of new software, systems, new toys and their applications. It’s just as important to understand how the widely adopted technologies can and will change the way people work. From group scheduling on a social networking site, to using Microsoft Messenger or Twitter as a team update tool, to mastering a Global Positioning System (GPS), the nature and priority of our work tasks has shifted, as has our interaction with colleagues. If we don’t ‘get’ that Messenger is the tool the team wishes to use for updates during a three-day conference, you will be out of the loop as well as out of work. If you don’t understand how the use of a PDA benefits the kitchen staff you probably won’t use it effectively enough to keep your waitressing job. If you’re not comfortable searching the internet then work at the local library is probably now beyond your reach.

Get it?

Do you have any tips for mature workers looking to re-enter the workforce, change career paths or simply take on more flexible hours? Share your ideas and success stories in the comments to give your fellow members a boost.

Written by Kaye Fallick