Work choice is the ultimate respect for elders, writes Sean Rooney.
Have you heard the story about a dynamic travel agent nicknamed “Rocket”, who’s a holiday guru and still happily working at 71?
He’s a thriving seller with Australia’s biggest travel franchise, flies planes in his spare time and is an aerobatic champion.
Then there’s the amazing Eileen Kramer, the 105-year-old dancer who’s still choreographing and is currently making a movie in Sydney.
They’re both shining examples of the sorts of seniors Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wants more and more older Australians to become.
They might not know it but they’re busily working to defuse the Treasurer’s “economic time bomb” of ageing we’re facing, as the proportion of seniors over 65 surges towards 25 per cent by 2050.
The common factors for both Rocket and Eileen are choice and respect.
They’ve chosen to continue in the workforce and their skills and contributions are respected, so they can be just as involved in their careers and communities as they always have been.
Importantly, they’re also out there breaking apart our nation’s ageist stereotypes every day, which is critical if we’re to have more balance between older and younger contributors to our economy and society.
National Seniors recently reported: “People have negative attitudes to older adults because they bring to mind the reality that they themselves will become old, and being old is an undesirable state”.
At the same time, much of the public debate about ageing is framed in the negative, as a problem to be solved.
One of the biggest negatives is now a stark reality for older Australians – when it comes to remaining in the workforce, it’s much tougher for them to compete.
If you’re over 50 and seeking work, on average it takes almost 70 weeks to land a job.
The rampant ageism behind these frightening figures has been documented by the Age Discrimination Commissioner and the Productivity Commission.
When you consider ageing in Australia today there are some facts that are confronting – especially in a nation that prides itself at home and abroad on the ethos of a “fair go for all”.
The latest Global Age Watch Index ranks Australia 17th in the world for support for older people in terms of income security, employment, education and health, plus other factors such as social connection, safety and access to transport.
Switzerland ranks number one and we are behind Canada (#5), the US (#9), New Zealand (#12) and Ireland (#15) but ahead of Israel (#18), Chile (#21) and Estonia (#23).
Seniors income security is a major factor contributing to our low ranking, mainly because high numbers of our older citizens rely on the age pension.
Poverty also affects up to one-third of Australians over 60, likely exacerbated by age discrimination against older jobseekers.
If we are to realise work equity for older people, it’s time to shift our national thinking from growing old to a lifelong journey of ageing well.
This is a fundamental task of national importance. How we support and revere older Australians – whether in the workplace or within aged care – requires a new vision of ageing.
As the Prime Minister said when he announced the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, “we need to build a national culture of respect for ageing and older Australians”.
Rediscovering this level of respect will help address our nation’s economic challenges, while confronting critical issues such as improving aged care, reducing the scourge of ageism and elder abuse, and resolving questions over income and retirement for seniors.
By respecting older people and working together, we are saying to all Australians that you are important because ageing is the fundamental progression of life.
How good our longer lives become is up to us.
Older Australians who want to work – whether it be to pursue their passions, to avoid poverty or to maintain the social linkages they love – must be given the choice to do so.
The right to choose is a critical foundation for a respectful and productive future.
Sean Rooney is chief executive officer of aged care provider peak Leading Age Services Australia.
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