Existing jobs need to be redesigned to suit older workers

Jobs will have to be redesigned to meet the health needs of older workers, say experts who contend that options other than retraining are necessary to keep people in jobs into their 60s.

Responding to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s edict that people in their 50s and 60s will have to learn new skills to contribute to the economy, leading workplace academics say existing jobs will also need to change to accommodate mature workers.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been urged to take a broader policy approach to helping people keep working into their 60s.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been urged to take a broader policy approach to helping people keep working into their 60s.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Professor Lyndall Strazdins, from the Australian National University’s College of Health and Medicine, said the Treasurer’s comments assumed that older workers should find new jobs.

“Retraining is how we refit workers to fit in with different jobs – the other option is to change existing jobs to fit older workers,” she said.


ANU researchers have interviewed employers who met the health needs of older workers by providing them with more sedentary duties and more flexible hours to allow them to attend doctor and physiotherapy appointments.

Professor Marian Baird, from the University of Sydney business school, said in the past four decades there had been a 30 per cent increase in the number of older women returning to work. She said there was a lack of policies addressing skill development and how existing jobs could be redesigned.

“The jobs they are currently doing probably need to be redesigned, which could benefit all workers and productivity overall,” she said.

Associate Professor Leanne Cutcher, from the University of Sydney School of Business, said the Treasurer’s comments overlooked barriers including age discrimination.

While there would be a need for people to update their skills around technology, “saying we need to retrain older workers feeds [a] discourse that they are somehow lacking”.

Dr Cutcher’s research has found that employers, including insurance companies, wanted older people in call centres because the soft skills they had developed over a lifetime could not be taught.

“There was a recognition that customers would often want to talk to someone older. Callers often wanted to talk to people with more experience,” she said.

While highly skilled workers could continue to earn big salaries in their 50s and 60s, this was harder after a period of unemployment.

Figures published by the Federal Department of Employment shows jobs with strong future growth prospects that employ people aged on average between 44 and 51 include aged and disabled carers, authors and book editors, confectionary makers, drug and alcohol and family and marriage counsellors. There were also strong prospects for managers, particularly in the construction and health industries, and for chief executives and managing directors more generally.

A spokesman for the Employment and Skills Minister Michaelia Cash said the government was committed to creating more job opportunities for Australian workers. More than 26,600 employers had entered 44,647 agreements since 2014 under the Restart Wage Subsidy program. The program provides $10,000 incentive payments for employers to hire workers aged over 50.

The spokesman said the healthcare and social assistance industry employed the largest number of workers aged 55 years and over (385,300), followed by education and training (239,600), public administration and safety (196,600), retail trade (192,900) and professional, scientific and technical services (190,100).

“Together these five industries employed nearly half (48.3 per cent) of workers aged 55 years and over,” the spokesman said. “Employment in these five industries is projected to grow strongly over the five years to May 2023.”

Employment growth in the health and social service industry is expected to experience the biggest jump – 14.9 per cent.

The Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute released a research paper on Friday that found the National Disability Insurance Scheme would create an estimated 70,000 new full-time jobs. But it warned that many of those jobs would be low paid and insecure.

Professor John Spoehr, director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, said the rise in demand for health and aged-care services would result in a range of low and higher paid jobs.

“The frontline jobs tend to be lower paid employment and more precarious forms of employment, but also there are higher end jobs created in a range of sectors as a consequence – in tourism, financial and business services and in manufacturing for different forms of technologies that are helpful to support people as they age,” he said.

Professor Spoehr said Australia was “by no means the most challenged of OECD nations” when it came to dealing with an ageing population but it needed to overcome barriers including age discrimination.

“It is important for the government to send a strong message to Australian employers of the need to value mature age skills and capabilities,” he said.

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