At 74, Graham Jones has boundless energy and no intention of slowing down when it comes to his physically demanding work.
“Work is therapeutic for me – I am not the kind of guy that can put my feet up and read a novel,” he said. “I know younger people who can’t keep up with me. I still ride a pushbike for 30 kilometres.”
So when his new manager of one month suggested he was too old to be working, it came as a shock. In the two years he had been in his handyman job with a NSW South Coast motel group, he had received no complaints about his work. But a few hours after he asked questions about his wages and superannuation on August 7, he was told he “should be enjoying his retirement”.
Mr Jones, from the Wollongong suburb of Cordeaux Heights, last week won an unfair dismissal case at the Fair Work Commission which ordered his reinstatement after finding he had a “reasonable expectation of ongoing employment”.
Fair Work commissioner Bernie Riordan said his employer’s concern that Mr Jones was not strong enough to do the job “defies logic” and was “inappropriate and condescending”. Dismissal due to his age was “unsound, capricious and fanciful”. Mr Jones was found to be “legally entitled to work and clearly capable of performing the work”.
Mr Riordan found that while Mr Jones is “only a relatively small 74-year-old man, he is clearly highly skilled, energetic and quite strong”.
The finding comes as new Australian research finds that health and wealth will determine who keeps working beyond their 50s and 60s unless jobs are redesigned to meet the needs of older workers.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has warned that if nothing is done to change existing work and retirement patterns, the number of older people who will need to be supported by other workers could rise by an average of 40 per cent by 2050 across developed nations, including Australia.
This would “put a brake on rising living standards as well as enormous pressure on younger generations who will be financing social protection systems”.
“Improving employment prospects of older workers will be crucial,” the OECD said.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has urged workers in their 50s and 60s to learn new skills to contribute to the economy, but leading workplace experts said existing jobs also will have to change to meet the health needs of older workers.
Mr Jones said the Treasurer needed to get out of his “Canberra bubble” and realise that people like him did not need retraining because he was a fully qualified sheet and metal worker and licensed to work in scaffolding as a rigger and forklift driver. He also had Certificate IV qualifications as a trainer and in work, health and safety.
“I’ve got a lot to offer in terms of knowledge and expertise acquired over many years,” he said. “Do I really need to retrain? What else can they train me for?
“There wasn’t a job that a manager asked me to do that I couldn’t do.”
Daniel Walton, national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, which fought Mr Jones’ unfair dismissal case, said his employer had “made an assumption about his ability based on his age, rather than his actual value to the workplace”. “That’s illegal,” Mr Walton said.
Associate Professor Leanne Cutcher, from the University of Sydney School of Business, said the Treasurer’s call to retrain older workers overlooked barriers including age discrimination.
While there would be a need for people in high-tech jobs to update their skills, “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 to achieve after a period of unemployment.
In soon-to-be-published research, Australian National University academics Dr Tinh Doan and Dr Christine Heyes have found that employers can meet the needs of many older workers with deteriorating health by providing them with more sedentary duties and flexible hours.
A former factory worker, for example, was able to keep working after transitioning to a bus driving job because he was given a comfortable seat, rest breaks and time out to see the doctor and physiotherapist.
Professor Lyndall Strazdins, from the ANU’s College of Health and Medicine, said it should not be assumed that older workers need to 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.
There is no point getting a 65-year-old to fit into jobs a 25-year-old can do, said Strazdins. And there is no evidence to support the assumption that 70 is the new 40.
“We have extended life expectancy, but the years of healthy living have hardly increased for many,” she said.
“We can’t expect that people are as well in the last 30 to 40 years of life as they were in middle age. They are significantly different in terms of their health profile and capabilities.”
While many displaced blue-collar workers face a future of unemployment, those in white-collar jobs tend to be healthier and wealthier, which helps them keep working for longer.
Older highly skilled workers have fewer physical demands and tend to have more savings and better health, which helps them keep working for longer.
Despite his enthusiasm to keep working, Mr Jones said there were financial disincentives. His pension payments and other benefits were cut when he started working more than 20 hours per week and earning above the social security threshold.
“I don’t mind not getting the pension, but to cancel everything else that goes with it without any notice makes you question why you should keep working,” he said.
A pancreatic cancer survivor of 15 years, he relies on medication that cost him $6.50 as a pensioner and $40.30 after his benefits were cut.
When he calculated the cost of losing his pensioner entitlements to utility cost discounts, free car registration, a free driver’s licence and Opal card travel to anywhere in NSW for $2.50, he was not far in front. After weighing up his earnings against the benefits he had lost, he estimated he was about $10 an hour better off.
“It was a significant blow to me because I need to take medication three times a day to survive,” he said.
Figures published by the Federal Department of Employment show 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, confectionery makers, and drug and alcohol and family and marriage counsellors. There were also strong prospects for managers, particularly in construction and health industries, and for chief executives and managing directors more generally.
The average age of chief executives and managing directors is 50, and the average number of hours worked weekly is 52. Only one in five are female.
Future employment prospects for welfare centre managers are “very strong”. Their average age is 48, average weekly pay is $2148 and 70 per cent are female.
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. But there was a lack of policies to address skill development needs 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.
A spokesman for Employment and Skills Minister Michaelia Cash said the government was committed to creating more job opportunities for Australian workers. More than 26,600 employers have entered 44,647 agreements under the Restart Wage Subsidy program since 2014. 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 (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 recently released a research paper 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.
The report said the insecurity of providing essential services under the NDIS’s “fragmented, market-driven delivery model are taking a severe toll, and leading many seasoned workers to exit the industry”.
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.
In its report Working Better With Age, the OECD said limited training opportunities given to older workers make it difficult for them to stay in their existing jobs or find a new one.
On average, a third of 55 to 65-year-olds have no computer skills or experience and only one in 10 had medium to good problem-solving skills in a “technology-rich” internet environment.
“Across the OECD, older adults and the low skilled more generally participate far less in training than their younger and more skilled colleagues,” the report said. “Ensuring that older people maintain their employability and have access to better employment choices will help them to navigate a labour market that will increasingly involve adaptation to changes in jobs and skill requirements.”
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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