Old gold

Stephen Match­ett on why old work­ers are good for busi­ness; John Con­nolly on ex­ec­u­tive pay; and An­drew Bax­ter on mar­ket­ing

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Stephen Match­ett

THE peo­ple who know how your busi­ness works are walk­ing out the door. And they are do­ing it ear­lier than the of­fi­cial re­tire­ment age. Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, some 75 per cent of re­tired men and 90 per cent of women are out of the work­force by the time they are 64. Yes, you can re­place them with peo­ple half their age, who can turn out to be half as pro­duc­tive. Ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Mel­bourne re­search, 40 per cent of 18-to-34-year-olds sur­veyed ad­mit­ted to fak­ing a sick day in the past year, while the over-45s were the least likely of any age group to chuck a sickie. And while older work­ers may not all be tyro tex­ters, the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Fam­ily Stud­ies says baby boomers ac­count for a third of on­line Aus­tralians. Tim Wind­sor, a Flin­ders Univer­sity re­searcher into life tran­si­tions, tells The Deal he sus­pects “a pretty good tech­nol­ogy up­date makes older work­ers more adapt­able”.

But em­ploy­ers who recog­nise this can’t just tell older work­ers they can stay. Em­ploy­ers have to of­fer more than money to make it worth­while for older work­ers to keep putting in the hours.

Diana War­ren from the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Fam­ily Stud­ies used the first eight waves from the House­hold In­come and Labour Dy­nam­ics in Aus­tralia Sur­vey to an­a­lyse path­ways to re­tire­ment. She found in cou­ple house­holds where men have had the longer ca­reers, su­per­an­nu­a­tion lev­els “do not ap­pear to have any sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on the like­li­hood of re­tir­ing grad­u­ally through part-time work”.

There are var­i­ous low-cost, sim­ple ways to hang on to older work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to sur­vey re­search for the Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Coun­cil, man­agers should be age-blind and as­sess peo­ple based on their skills and knowl­edge and abil­ity to get the job done. Busi­nesses can also ap­peal to work­ers’ pro­fes­sional pride and train up older staff. En­gi­neers at 60 have seen much more tech­no­log­i­cal change than they had at 40 and if they still think of them­selves as prob­lem-solvers they will want to learn more.

As Stephen Bil­lett from Grif­fith Univer­sity re­ported in a study for the Na­tional Cen­tre for Vo­ca­tional Education and Train­ing, you can teach an old dog new tricks. “The ev­i­dence sug­gests they con­tin­u­ally learn in and through their work, as most con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of cog­ni­tion would pre­dict.”

But it’s not just the train­ing, it’s the way that you train them that gets re­sults. In­duct­ing an IT vet­eran into an op­er­at­ing sys­tem in the same way as a new grad­u­ate is a great way

to en­sure some­body who has seen it all be­fore switches off.

Em­ploy­ers can keep older work­ers happy by sim­ply show­ing them some re­spect, not by glib com­mit­ments to in­clu­sion but by giv­ing them phys­i­cal re­sources to do their jobs. This can be as easy as er­gonomic chairs or as com­plex as the emerg­ing ex­oskele­tons that can carry the weight now borne by bod­ies on as­sem­bly lines and build­ing sites.

And busi­nesses need to give the old the same chance as the young for new as­sign­ments and op­por­tu­ni­ties, or watch as they be­come com­peti­tors. Re­search by Alex Maritz from Swin­burne Univer­sity sug­gests en­trepreneurs with an av­er­age age of 57 lead 34 per cent of all young firms in Aus­tralia. The 8 per cent en­trepreneur­ship rate for Aus­tralians aged 55-64 is 3 per cent above the av­er­age for in­no­va­tion-driven economies. “About 80 per cent of re­spon­dents sig­nif­i­cantly val­ued the non-fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits of self-em­ploy­ment, such as life­style and health pref­er­ences,” Maritz adds. “For many, start­ing a busi­ness is a key to ac­tive age­ing and ex­tend­ing their work­ing life.”

For many of the smartest work­ers in older age it’s all about daily ex­pe­ri­ences rather than in­vest­ing in the fu­ture, as re­searchers Bar­bara Grif­fin, Mac­quarie Univer­sity, and Hannes Zacher, QUT, found in an anal­y­sis of job sat­is­fac­tion and ca­reer adapt­abil­ity among older Aus­tralian work­ers. “Rel­a­tively older work­ers fo­cus on more im­me­di­ate emo­tion­ally pos­i­tive and mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ences at work com­pared to rather ef­fort­ful and fu­ture-ori­ented be­hav­iours as­so­ci­ated with ca­reer adapt­abil­ity, such as en­gage­ment in train­ing and net­work­ing,” they say.

But above all it’s about of­fer­ing peo­ple op­tions be­yond the ex­tremes of the stan­dard work­ing week ver­sus wak­ing up on Mon­day fac­ing noth­ing to do, for­ever. Miriam Forbes and col­leagues from Mac­quarie Univer­sity dis­cov­ered the cru­cial im­por­tance of choice when they sur­veyed 2000 69- and 70-yearold men and women from the 2007 Na­tional Sur­vey of Men­tal Health and Well­be­ing, ac­count­ing for health, wealth, mar­i­tal sta­tus and phys­i­cal de­mands of their oc­cu­pa­tion.

They found that work­ing full-time later in life is no bet­ter or worse for men­tal well­be­ing than be­ing re­tired. Rather, part-time work­ers had the best men­tal health and sense of well­be­ing.

“This is prob­a­bly be­cause part-time work com­bines the pos­i­tive ef­fects of re­tire­ment (less stress, more time for leisure ac­tiv­i­ties) and the pos­i­tive ef­fects of work (sense of pur­pose, au­ton­omy, so­cial net­works, fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence),” they say.

But Dr Forbes tells The Deal that this ap­plies when peo­ple have the au­ton­omy to make up their own minds on what they do and for how long: “Free­dom to choose is re­ally im­por­tant.”

Busi­nesses that lose their own veter­ans can still pinch peo­ple leav­ing other or­gan­i­sa­tions who like the idea of do­ing some­thing new, just not for a stan­dard work­ing week.

The “en­core ca­reer” idea is well es­tab­lished in the US and may ac­count for the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­bound in the aged work­force there. In 1995 barely a quar­ter of Amer­i­can men over 60 were in the work­force, now it is 35 per cent. Though 10 per cent lower, the rate of growth for women was the same. (Al­though an in­crease in the pen­sion age and a re­duc­tion in pub­lic pay­ments for earned in­come has a great deal to do with it.)

En­core ca­reers have al­ways ex­isted in in­for­mal ways – there isn’t a mu­seum in the world that would work with­out vol­un­teers. But with re­tire­ment stretch­ing for 30 years the chance to es­tab­lish new ex­per­tise, and be paid for it, will be ap­peal­ing, and not just to peo­ple with ex­pen­sive pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

Re­searcher Jane Fig­gis points to trades skills as an ob­vi­ous area where en­core ca­reers can flour­ish. Vo­ca­tional col­leges in the US, like TAFE here, have de­vel­oped new skills train­ing for older work­ers. The chal­lenge for the Aus­tralian vo­ca­tional education sys­tem is to re­jig cour­ses to suit ma­ture age work­ers. In­dus­try should en­cour­age train­ers to make the ef­fort, if only to meet skills short­ages.

Of course, liv­ing longer does not mean peo­ple in their 60s are fit for work. As the late de­mog­ra­pher Graeme Hugo found, baby boomers at mid-life are less healthy than their par­ents; 26 per cent are obese com­pared to 12 per cent of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion.

Aus­tralian man­age­ment also has a way to go in pitch­ing of­fers to older work­ers, es­pe­cially women. A sur­vey of flex­i­ble work­ing con­di­tions by Cather­ine Earl and Philip Tay­lor from Fed­er­a­tion Univer­sity found “the needs of older women work­ers are not dif­fer­en­ti­ated by man­agers from the needs of older men work­ers ... nor from the needs of younger women.”

The peo­ple em­ploy­ers want to keep or at­tract are the self­s­tarters who see them­selves as in con­trol of their lives. As Fig­gis says, “the deep ques­tion for peo­ple ap­proach­ing ... re­tire­ment is not ‘what will I do?’ but ‘who will I be?’.” Em­ploy­ers who can help them an­swer that will find a new work­force, ex­pe­ri­enced, en­thu­si­as­tic, smart and skilled – just old.

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