rosie the rivetter

This short-term fix won’t end well



With the world population counter ticking over to 8 billion yesterday, the need to foster age-neutral engagement for all is paramount. Nowhere is this seen more sharply than the somewhat lame attempts to get older Australians back in the work place. Here’s why…

The way we’re trying to woo older workers to help solve the skills shortage isn’t going to work.

Remember breaking up with the love of your life? The grief, the heartbreak.

And then, down the track, they call.

Oh the joy. The delirium.

But somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re wondering why. Is it because they have suddenly realised how much they adore you and can’t live without you? Or is it more about their needs? Were they dumped by someone else? Maybe it’s not so much for your irresistible charms, but more about their short term need to fill a gap?

Well that’s what looks to be going on with our sudden recognition of the skills and values of older Australian workers. Where have all these admirers been over the last 10 years when the situation of older jobseekers sank to an all-time low?

In May 2022 there were an estimated 171,600 Australians, aged 55-64, who were unemployed but would have preferred to be working if the conditions were right, according to the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (using Australian Bureau of Statistics labour force estimates). Those aged 55 and over typically spend twice as much time out of work as do younger cohorts, according to National Seniors Australia research. Now, in the second half of 2022, owing to border closures and disrupted global trading conditions, Australia has a skills shortage. Unemployment, at 3.5%, is at an all-time low since August 1974 and we’re crying out for labour, both skilled and unskilled.

Despite some ‘gosh, gee’ media coverage, it’s unsurprising that we have skills shortages. We closed our borders for two years and threw out foreign students by failing to offer them any form of support package at all. To quote the then-Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, in April 2020:

‘If they’re not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries.’

This affected some 600,000 students. So we were always likely to run out of workers, particularly those who have done the jobs that locals prefer not to.

With unemployment at a 40-year low, it’s also unsurprising that HR language is changing from describing older workers as too expensive, not flexible enough, lacking ‘energy’ and technical smarts. This has now morphed into a grudging admittance that ‘At least they’ll probably be reliable’.

The labour shortage has also encouraged policy changes, in particular a significant boost to the Work bonus for those 70% of retirees on an Age Pension. The ‘bonus’ is the amount you can earn without threatening your pension payments. It is being lifted from $7800 per year to $11,800 for this financial year only. Although this is a strong boost, it doesn’t translate into much in terms of weekly earnings. It would be far better to remove any restrictions on income from work and allow older workers to work as much as they want and then pay tax accordingly

Inviting older workers back into the workforce is actually a ‘Rosie the riveter’ moment.

For those not old enough to know, Rosie was the poster girl in a campaign to encourage women to work in factories in wartime America. And so many did. They turned out in droves. Estimates are that somewhere between five and six million women kept the production lines moving.

And then things changed. In 1945 the war ended and the servicemen returned home. They needed their jobs back.

And then guess what?

The ladies were shown the door.

And Madison Avenue switched its efforts from factory recruitment campaigns to making white goods sexy, so the little lady at home could have a fun time doing housework while waiting for the man of the house return from his daily grind at – you guessed it – the factory from which she had been summarily ejected.

Enough of the history lesson. It does, however, offer a salutary reminder that while older workers may be just the solution to fill work place gaps in 2022 Australia, they are not there to be picked up and discarded at whim.

When these female workers were sent packing, they probably felt as heartbroken as you did when your ex dumped you.

It’s emotional. When we hire or rehire older workers, we’re dealing with people.

Not economic units nor ‘head count’.

These are human beings with beating hearts, not mere factory fodder.

And they are right to be suspicious of overtures from the workplace; those same HR managers who previously rejected their job applications without even looking at them.

Things have changed in today’s workplaces.

The Human Resources department is now known as ‘People and Culture’ and is much more accountable within an ESG framework.

It’s time to call out the elephant in the room and add an ‘A” to this framework.

Environmental, Sustainable, Age Friendly Governance – ESAG, finally recognising the campaign against ageism is one of the last frontiers of discrimination. If workplaces are genuine about people and culture they need to both address the pervasive widespread ageism that still informs hire and fire decision making. And they need to create an environment which is truly co-generational. It’s better for all people involved and research shows it can also lead to better workplace outcomes including higher profits.

But if the hirers are only after a short term fix to solve current labour shortages and only one side’s interests are served, this won’t end well.

Believe it or not, you can’t just pick people up and then put them down again anymore! It’s the opposite of respect.

If this was to happen, older Australian workers would probably shut up shop on their skills and embrace the lure of the ‘Great Retirement’ forever.

This won’t be conducive to a vibrant workplace culture, now or in the future.

To revisit the opening analogy, if your ex really does want you for your special attributes, then this relationship may well have long term prospects.

It just may be worth reviving.