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The most significant, and welcome, aspect of 2022 has been the near-50-year low in the unemployment rate.

This is not just for obvious reasons: fewer people out of work, more people earning a living wage, and more business for recruitment agencies.

The best thing to come from the low availability of active workforce participants is that many employers have been forced to confront their archaic attitude toward older Australians as potential employees.

Ageism in the labour market has long been a topic of interest to me.

Insight 6, published on 1 November 2007, contained What’s age got to do with it? my blog pointing out the contrast in how consumers scramble for concert tickets to see old rockers like the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan perform, yet many Australian employers seem allergic to any job applicant over 45 years old.

Maybe it’s an issue I am especially sensitive to given my first experience of ‘being too old’ for a job occurred twenty years ago, at the ripe old age of 35.

Prophetically, a 2004 IBM Business Consulting report that I quote in the aforementioned blog, stated:

“Australia faces a potential workforce crisis. As its workforce ages, a relatively low number of workers are choosing to remain in the workforce.”

In 2022, rather unexpectedly, due to the impact of border closures and a surge in local demand, the potential workforce crisis became a real workforce crisis for a large majority of Australian employers.

Bunnings showed the way in recognising the employment capabilities of older Australians and last month I highlighted the huge success a Victorian regional restaurateur had with his campaign to hire older workers.

A KPMG analysis shows the labour force grew by 491,000 between October 2019 and October 2022 (using a 12-month rolling average to smooth out volatility). Of that, about 186,000, or 38 per cent, were aged over 55

Nationally, almost one in five of Australia’s workers, or 19.6 per cent, are now aged over 55, up from just 11.4 per cent two decades ago in October 2002.

KPMG urban economist Terry Rawnsley said improved job flexibility and limited travel opportunities over the past few years had also encouraged older workers back into paid work.

Rawnsley said the trend was well underway before record-high inflation and cost of living pressures emerged this year. But if those economic pressures continued, he said, there could be an even bigger rise in older people going back to work to make ends meet.

“Our labour market is continuing to go gangbusters,” Rawnsley said. “What we are seeing is a great unretirement, primarily driven by more favourable workplace conditions, primarily work-from-home options and more flexible working hours.”

I would add that the greater willingness of employers to invest in training older workers has also helped. This investment has been necessary as many older workers are being sought for jobs they have never previously undertaken, primarily in the hospitality, retail, and aged care sectors.

It should not come as any surprise that last week the Harvard Business Review espoused the benefits of employing older workers; loyalty, reliability, sound judgement in addressing critical customer needs, and a collaborative spirit.

In the same HBR article the results of a study, covering both interviews and survey data, of 35,000 older, experienced employees in the United States were examined and seven universal design principles for engaging older employees in essential roles were identified.

The seven principles are:

  1. Design respectful and purposeful roles: The leadership challenge of reframing essential jobs from tasks perceived as menial to positions full of meaning can be overcome by designing roles with greater purpose.
  1. Arrange and enable flexible schedules: Two-thirds of the older employees in the study wanted their workplace and managers to show “a sincere interest in me as a person, not just an employee.” For frontline roles, flexible scheduling to accommodate family, health, and travel can demonstrate caring leadership.
  1. Pay for the job, not for tenure: Employers should focus on the value of the work older workers do — not necessarily their years in the workforce or their tenure with that employer.
  1. Adapt and accommodate physical challenges: In the study, employees were much more likely to recommend their workplace to friends when they feel “our facilities contribute to a good working environment.” More broadly, solutions that elevate comfort and decrease repetitive physical activities benefit workers of all ages and decrease costly workplace injuries.
  1. Communicate  clearly and candidly: In the study, four of five individuals want to stay longer and refer friends when they feel management communicates expectations clearly. Older workers also appreciate their views being sought on relevant workforce issues.
  1. Build community and camaraderie: Many essential roles across industries can be monotonous and difficult. A fun-loving workplace where employees enjoy each other’s company can mean a lot to the frontline experience. What is more, customer satisfaction and employee happiness are correlated.
  1. Tackle ageism: Negative age bias in policies and practices can result in multiple negative effects on health, well-being, and productivity. To tackle ageism, employers must use targeted messaging to elevate the value of experience and age as part of a diversity and inclusion strategy. Such a strategy must also address implicit ageism in hiring managers and current employees.

The new-found respect afforded older workers by many employers is now, in many cases, proving to be the difference between those employers not experiencing a workforce crisis, and those that are.

Related blogs

What’s age got to do with it?

Innovative employer proves labour shortage is a myth

Bunnings busts talent ‘shortage’ by hiring an 87 year-old (who’s still there 4 years later)

Discriminatory, hypocritical and narcissistic employers their own worst enemy

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