Work till 70: tell that to the unemployed

December 16, 2013
older female worker

It makes sense to raise the pension age to 70 as the Productivity Commission recently suggested. But not before Australia undergoes a cultural shift in its attitudes to mature-age workers. So many prejudices and stereotypes must be obliterated before we insist people work till 70. What needs to be remembered – and especially now that so many mature-age car industry workers face potential unemployment – is that it’s not just young people who subsist on the below poverty-level Newstart Allowance if they can’t find work. It’s also people like Maria.

Maria is 52. She’s been living on the Newstart payment of $250 a week for two years. (For people aged 60 and over the payment is $270 a week after nine months’ unemployment). Are you thinking there must be something wrong with Maria to be out of work for two years? Are you thinking she’s one of the “unemployables” with low education, little job experience, and a negative disposition?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I rang her to talk about her experience of being a mature-age job seeker. Maria turned out to be the opposite of what the term “very long-term unemployed” may conjure up. Maria told me that until she turned 50 she was more or less constantly in work. As a single woman, she’d bought her own unit. Although she lacked the full credentials to be a librarian, she’d worked as a casual in school libraries and as a company archivist almost without break. About two years ago she went back to university to complete her formal qualifications in Library Information Management. She felt she was making a new beginning but in the eyes of employers, it seemed, having reached her fifth decade, she’d hit the end. The work dried up.

Maria has one of those lilting voices that sound as if she’s singing. It’s lovely to listen to her. And she’s almost relentlessly positive. “I’ve given myself a good talking to about being negative,” she says. Even when she utters a criticism, or ventures that age discrimination may be a factor in her knock-backs, it’s with gentleness and humour. “My two sisters have never had problems with jobs; my parents have always taken care of themselves. I’m the only dole bludger in the dynasty,” she says.

When she first struck overt ageism, she was genuinely shocked. A university lecturer in the library course, in response to a question from a younger student about job prospects, said he personally wouldn’t hire women over 50: “You know the type – long skirts and thick-framed glasses.” Maria was roused to fury: “I wanted to punch him but I needed to pass the course,” she said. Hers is a familiar story of a mature-age worker applying for any job going – store greeter, office assistant, warehouse worker. Perhaps the newly-acquired university degree was a turn off to employers looking for a sales assistant.

The ageist attitude of bosses is an undeniable problem. But researchers at the Brotherhood of St Laurence are finding bosses aren’t the only culprit. “A key issue we’ve identified is the age profile of people working in HR (human resources) and in the government-funded employment agencies,” said Dr Michael McGann, a University of Melbourne academic. “The people in HR doing the hiring are in their 20s and 30s and they’re more likely than older people to discriminate against older people.”

Dr McGann is in the midst of a research project for the Brotherhood into unemployment among people aged 45 to mid 70s. In his interviews with dozens of people what’s struck him is their sense of having so much to give: “They feel they have so much vigour and experience; they feel completely wasted.” What’s also emerged is what he calls the “white collar support gap.” Many mature-age unemployed people, like Maria, have degrees. They’ve had successful careers. But they’re being sent to government-funded job agencies for help. (For Newstart recipients attendance is compulsory). “These services are targeted at getting unskilled youngsters into work,” Dr McGann said. “They teach resume writing and how to dress for a job interview, and the people I’m talking about have had a 30-year career in a senior position. We need new thinking about ways to support people from white collar backgrounds into work.”

It’s paradoxical that a higher proportion of older people are in the workforce than 20 years ago. But should they lose a job it can be like scaling Everest to get another. In a decade the number of Newstart recipients aged 55 and over has doubled, and half have been out of work for two years or more. A new survey by The Australia Institute found older people are twice as likely as those under 45 to take more than two years to find a job.

In June 2012 about one in four Newstart recipients was aged 50 and over – around 154,000 people wasted. How can they possibly survive so long on the Newstart pittance? In Maria’s case it’s by running down her modest superannuation savings intended for her old age. She’s been able to access her super under the “severe financial hardship” provision but she’s almost exhausted the allowable limit. Her 93-year-old father has also helped. Maria is keeping her spirits up. “When I look at myself in the mirror I don’t see a downtrodden person,” she says. She’s doing her best but is Australia? Will Holden’s workers be shown special consideration? We’ve much to do to change attitudes, the Newstart Allowance, and the help offered all mature-age unemployed before we raise the pension age to 70.

What are your thoughts about raising the pension age to 70? And the ‘white collar support gap?’ Please leave a Comment.

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