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Okay Boomer, it's back to work you go


Old hands on a computer keyboard

Older workers want to keep working but not in the same way

Josh Frydenberg’s desire that Australians aged 65 and over keep working to fix the economy pre-supposes two things: firstly, that older Australians actually want to keep working and secondly, that they would be welcomed in the workplace.

I’ve been researching in this area since 1998 when then-Minister for Aged Care Bronwyn Bishop, like many other politicians around the world, advocated for older workers to make a bigger contribution to the national economy, increase the tax base, reduce dependency ratios and ease the financial burden of an ageing population. Frydenberg’s idea seems similar.

Do older Australians want to keep working? The answer is mostly yes, though not in the same way and for the same reasons they did earlier in their lives. An in-depth investigation revealed that older adults view work as a complex construct, not just a financial necessity and a means of professional validation. They want genuine meaning in their work, they like the idea of contributing to the community, and they benefit from social engagement. Significantly, these can be realised through volunteer work.

Older adults viewed paid employment as contingent on financial viability, saying that if they did not have sufficient funds to support themselves, they would accept the need for paid employment. Nevertheless, there was the sense that a long-held dream had died – that retirement before 65, a privilege enjoyed by many before them, was no longer possible owing to being a ‘Baby Boomer’.

Regardless of how they feel about it, many older Australians will have to work for longer than they hoped to. But expecting a plethora of jobs is available to them is overly optimistic, if not fanciful.

Research over several decades has consistently found that employers, and the broader community, harbour negative stereotypes about older workers that are paramount in making hiring decisions. Compared to younger workers, they view older workers as less able to adapt to new technology, less energetic and ambitious, and generally less cognitively adept.

There are positive stereotypes too, that older workers are rich in “character”, loyal, punctual and friendly, but these are seldom top of the list in selection criteria.

Further to the negative views of employers and colleagues, older workers’ own views of themselves are often injurious. Self-stereotyping, which is debilitating, occurs when older workers internalise societal negative attitudes toward them. We often hear older workers saying they have had “a senior moment” or that something is unlikely to happen “at my age”. Research has shown that older adults who negatively self-stereotype tend to perform worse. They create their own self-fulfilling prophecies, are less likely to seek work due to fear of failure and present badly at interviews due to low self-expectations.

Research has found that demographic changes alone do not relax negative attitudes toward older workers, which are part of our socio-cultural worldview. An ageing population won’t necessarily fix itself.  Negative stereotyping as well as intergenerational tensions will continue to impair older workers’ employability and well-being if we do nothing to arrest them.

What does it all mean for Josh Frydenberg’s vision? Well, any policy-making in this area should heed research. We need to proactively debunk negative stereotypes about older workers, reduce intergenerational tensions and minimise negative self-stereotyping among older adults. I have designed and tested interventions to promote positive attitudes toward older workers and increase the likelihood of their hiring. One showed promise in a randomised controlled trial, was recorded in Hansard and is yet to be implemented by industry and/or government.

It should also be recognised that circumstances, wishes and motivations in older adulthood are different from those in younger adulthood. As older adults we may, for example, have partners who require our support and grandchildren we want to see more of … such needs should be addressed if modern workplaces are to be truly flexible and accommodating of lifespan-related changes.

Finally, we must recognise that older workers possess invaluable wisdom and experience; that a negative worldview about ageing fosters a bleak future for all of us in terms of employability and otherwise. That’s a public relations campaign worth investing in.

Dr Eyal Gringart is a senior lecturer in psychology in ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities. This piece was originally published in The West Australian.

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