Older workers’ time has come

Action on ageist policies and laws are in the Commonwealth’s sights as the mismatching reality of a growing economy and an ageing population finally starts to bite. A new paper highlights the key problem areas.

Above: Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan

By Keryn Curtis

Structural barriers related to accessing workers compensation, income protection insurance, superannuation and professional licensing, must be urgently addressed to ensure older workers are not only enabled but encouraged to participate in the workforce, according to a new report.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s paper, entitled ‘Working Past Our 60s: Reforming Laws and Policies for the Older Worker’, was launched in Melbourne on Wednesday by the Hon Bill Shorten MP, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation with Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan.

The paper finds that age related limits in many of our laws and policies are not only blocking opportunities for workforce participation for older workers and creating financial and security difficulties, they also send a message to older workers that they should not be in the workforce.

“Although most people want to continue to work through their 60’s and beyond, they face a number of external barriers,” Commissioner Ryan said.  “Recent research tells us that, of people aged over 55 years, there are about 2 million who are capable and want to work, but are barred from jobs.”

Commissioner Ryan said that most workers compensation stops at 65, or soon after, and income insurance is hard to get after 60.

“This is a big barrier for tradespeople who need to insure their business and themselves,” Ms Ryan said. “For example, age bars in licensing stop capable vehicle drivers from getting jobs, even in the current climate of skills shortages.”

By highlighting how these arrangements affect older workers, Commissioner Ryan said she hopes to create impetus for reform, in state and Commonwealth government workers compensation schemes and in the private insurance industry.

Time for action, not words

Chief executive of the consumer organisation, National Seniors Australia, Michael O’Neill, said the paper identified issues that his organisation had been talking about a decade ago and that it was “time for the Commonwealth to stop producing reports, lead by example and get on with introducing practical change.”

He said research by National Seniors, quoted in the report, revealed an annual loss of $10.8 billion to the economy in not utilising the skills and experience of older workers.

“It’s all starting to feel like Ground Hog Day,” said Mr O’Neill.  “It’s time government put down its pens and got on with the business of removing these long-identified legislative barriers”. 

The chief executive of COTA (Council on the Ageing), Ian Yates, said COTA had been working on addressing issues around access to workers compensation for older workers and “other issues to do with registrations and superannuation and the retirement age” for over a decade. 

“This report is trying to further create awareness of these issues.  The Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry is looking at legal barriers in Commonwealth laws and policies, to mature age people participating in the workforce. The Commonwealth can’t legislate for workers compensation because it is State based but they can raise it at COAG [Council of Australian Governments].”

“The new commissioner is doing her best to raise awareness, and strengthening of the Act [Age Discrimination Act 2004] will help.  But the federal government can show leadership through raising workers compensation at COAG.  That’s the one that worries us,” Mr Yates said.

However, Mr Yates also acknowledged that, “notwithstanding those years spent lobbying, workforce demographics are going to force employers generally to deal with ageism and age discrimination.”

Striking while the iron is hot

While Commissioner Ryan agreed we have known about our ageing population and its projected impact for a long time, she said its real impact on public policy was still relatively new. However, she said there was now a groundswell of interest and action taking place in governments and businesses as the consequences of the demographic shift became clearer. 

“I think it’s finally biting and my own view is that it’s the result of two big factors,” said Ms Ryan.

“It’s the coming together of a very publicly – and at times, controversially – discussed skills shortage; and the fact that we do have a growing economy, as the economic results announced today show.

“The conjunction of those two things is really focusing attention on this issue and I feel an urgent sense of having to get these things done now. If for any reason our economy went into decline and there was no skills shortage then it would be much harder to achieve the changes.

“This is the moment and the Federal government is very aware of doing everything they can to keep people working in this ever growing proportion of our population,” Ms Ryan said.

Download a copy of the paper, “Working past our 60s – reforming laws and policies for the older worker ”  here.

Tags: age-discrimination-act, age-discrimination-commissioner, ageism, australian-law-reform-commission-inquiry, coag, cota, ian-yates, mature-workers, michael-oneill, national-seniors, older-workers, superannuation, susan-ryan, workers-compensation, workforce,

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