The current generation of older worker – the baby boomers – have revolutionised every aspect of society and are now transforming the concept of retirement. Don’t expect these rebels to sit gently rocking in their arm chairs, reading the daily paper in their older years. They are more likely to be travelling the world, caravanning across Australia, chasing after grandchildren, caring for their elderly parents, and juggling their work-life balance. This cohort is unlikely to be attracted to the traditional model of retirement that their parents embraced. So, having policies that enable older workers to transition to retirement by working part-time, or to take time off to establish volunteering routines, travel or learn new hobbies will be far more appropriate to modern-day retirees than the traditional ‘golden handshake’. As the proportion of older people participating in the workforce increases, so too will the demand for age-friendly workplaces.
The age-friendly movement is an initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Originally aimed at identifying the features of cities that help or hinder people as they age, the concept has spread to all domains of community life. Almost 300 cities in 33 countries have signed up to the WHO’s Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities. Central to the concept of being ‘age-friendly’ is the principle that an environment designed with older people in mind will benefit people of all ages and abilities. Age-friendly elements include public transport that is easy to use, accessible buildings, public toilets and ample resting places. Just as important is the social environment – how inclusive a community is and whether it has opportunities for people to participate in civic engagement, paid employment and volunteering.
The age-friendly concept is now spreading to the workplace. An age-friendly workplace is one with culture and policies that are inclusive and supportive and ensures that workers are not treated differently because of their age. An employer who offers flexible working conditions such as compressed weeks or flexible hours, working from home, job share arrangements, and flexible leave provisions will appeal to workers of all ages. The desire to learn new skills doesn’t stop when you reach the age of 40. Workplaces that offer development opportunities to all staff are more likely to attract and retain a diverse pool of talent. An age-friendly workplace also considers the physical working environment. This includes accessible toilets, step-free access to buildings, easy-to-read signage, large print materials and user-friendly technology. Many of these features will also benefit younger workers with limited mobility and physical or sensory impairments. Viewing a workplace through an age-friendly lens means that any adjustments will benefit the entire workforce.
With increasing numbers of over-55s in the workforce, it is time to turn the spotlight on the contribution of older workers. A 2012 Deloitte report, Increasing Participation Among Older Workers, suggests that a 3% increase in workforce participation of those aged over 55 would result in $33 billion boost to Australia’s GDP. Yet this resource is often lost to employers – a 2012 survey of HR professionals by the Australian Human Resources Institute found that almost half agreed the departure of older workers resulted in a loss of key knowledge and skills for their organisations. The Australian Bureau of Statistics also found that many older people report barriers to employment such as a lack of vacancies, too many applicants or being considered too old.
Like it or not, many of us are going to have to work for longer. This fact has been reinforced by the raising of the future pension age and the Australian government’s financial incentives for employers to hire an older job seeker. These initiatives may open the door to older workers but retaining this valuable human resource requires a greater cultural shift within workplaces. We all need to ask ‘how age-friendly is my workplace?’
* This post first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30/8/14