I know a few people in their late 40s and 50s trying to re-invent themselves. They want to embark on what the Americans call “encore” careers. Their main career has run dry for one reason or another. A former advertising executive has returned to university to become a high school teacher, a welfare worker is studying to be an electrical engineer. Encore careers, second acts…. a whole industry exists to persuade redundant, laid-off and disillusioned older workers that they can and should re-make themselves for the long working years ahead.
As people hit their 50th and 60th birthdays many realise they’ll need to keep going even longer than their fathers did; the global financial crisis has devoured their savings; early retirement is not an option. Still others, without the snare of ambition or children to support, see the chance to extricate themselves from the grind of a soulless job to do work they find more meaningful. But re-invention is not as easy as the spruikers suggest especially if people lack substantial means to sustain themselves over the re-training years, or the capital to start their own business. There are laws against age discrimination. But in the real world age discrimination makes a mockery of some people’s aspirations to start again.
I don’t know if Tom’s experience is typical; the national figures on unemployed and under-employed older workers suggest tens of thousands would have similar stories to tell. Older jobseekers face on average 70 weeks out of work, about double the time of someone under 55. This is what Tom told me: He’d run a music shop selling CDs, musical instruments and electronic goods for 23 years in a big regional town; a town where he’d headed up the local chamber of commerce, ran major fund-raising events for local causes, and taught music to dozens and dozens of the local children. At 61, he could see his business being undermined by music downloads and decided it was time to move on. The only part of the business he could sell was the music school. But he and his wife, who worked in an office doing conveyancing, were optimistic about his new start. Nothing prepared Tom for the six months of rejection he’s endured.
He tried to get a job as an employment trainer that a local jobs agency was advertising – with his years in business and as a teacher, Tom thought he could make the switch. But he lacked the necessary Certificate IV qualification, he was told, and it would cost him $2000 to do the course and qualify. It was money he didn’t have, and because his wife had a job, Centrelink could not help him out. Ironically over the years, Tom had helped many of his younger employees gain a Certificate IV.
Originally he gave the full breadth of his experience on his curriculum vitae. His daughters told him to lop off a couple of decades. He was prepared to move to Sydney or Brisbane, or to travel long hours as a salesman for a big music company. He believes the lack of formal qualifications and his age have been decisive. “You knew they were thinking ‘We’d only have him for five years.’ My argument was ‘Yes five years but in two years I’ll still be with you and a young person probably won’t be.’” Gentle and upbeat, Tom admits to experiencing two low weeks such as “I’ve never felt before.” Now, while holding out for the full-time job he needs, he’s pleased to be working two shifts as a waiter at a local restaurant where the young owner thinks he’ll bring in the older crowd.
Since former treasurer Peter Costello in 2002 released the first inter-generational report on ageing Australia, governments have exhorted us boomers to eschew early retirement and work longer for our own benefit and the nation’s. An increase in the 55-plus participation rate by just six per cent would contribute about $30 billion to the economy in a year. Timid policies to combat employer discrimination in hiring come and go. Three were scrapped in the past year or so. A new program to give employers a $1000 bonus to hire an older worker appears to have produced the usual poor results – just over 80 staff hired since it came into effect in January. Next off the rank is a major report from the Australian Law Reform Commission following an inquiry into the employment barriers that face people aged 45-plus. You can count on employer resistance to suggested changes just when it seems stronger legal measures are needed, and nothing short of a revolutionary shift in attitudes.
It’s harder than the spruikers claim but not impossible: people do fashion encore careers with patience, support and luck; and sometimes by taking a side-ways step rather than a whole new path. One break is all most people need. Another 61-year-old I’ve met once ran a Sydney language college. He started studying law at 55. He thrived. Eventually he became possibly the world’s oldest articled clerk. Now he’s setting up his own practice: a happy, born-again working man.
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