An individual over the age of 55 is considered a mature aged worker in Australia. In some cases, those 55 years and over may be thinking about retirement. According to a study conducted by the A.B.S. 64% of 65–69 year old Australians were retired in 2017.
However, there is a growing awareness amongst organisations that Australians are living longer and healthier, strengthening the need for them to consider the implications of an older workforce.
Australians are increasingly working to older ages. In January 2018, Australians aged 65 and over had a workforce participation rate of 13%, compared with 8% in 2006. By 2050, one in four Australians will be aged 65 and over. With these statistics in mind, employers should be aware that a workplace with older employees will soon become quite normal.
Relation to age discrimination for workplaces
Age is a protected attribute that can’t be discriminated against under Australian law. This applies to all businesses in accordance with the Age Discrimination Act 2004. Age discrimination refers to when someone is denied the same opportunity or treated unfairly based on their age. This is regardless of whether someone is on the younger or older end of the spectrum.
In essence, it is unlawful for a person to be bullied or harassed by a colleague based on their age. All types of employment status for a worker is protected under this act. However, the act is not only limited to work rights, also applying to activities such as purchasing property, investing in education and the use of other general services.
The impacts of an ageing workforce
Some organisations may face some challenges in shifting to an older workforce. For example:
- Different generations existing in the workplace potentially leading to misunderstandings, different attitudes and greater risk of conflict;
- Health issues leading to increased absent days;
- Discrimination and amongst employees;
- Difficultly adapting to new technologies; and
- Resistance to change, especially amongst people that have performed the same role for many years.
Businesses may be looking to reduce the responsibilities of a mature aged worker due to factors such as these. Providing opportunity and growth for younger employees may be more of a priority.
Benefits of mature aged workers
For organisations, older team members can provide great value. Mature age workers can bring a significant amount of experience and skills, developed over many years of employment. So too, they often have deep loyalty that translates into hard work, being less likely to move organisations in search of a better role.
How to accommodate older employees in the workplace
- Succession planning. Having a strategy to slowly reduce their responsibilities and transfer their skills and knowledge on to younger colleagues. Experience cannot be underestimated and would prove invaluable to a new team member.
- Training of managers. Reducing the risk of unconscious bias and incidents of discrimination. Greater awareness and understanding will ensure that organisations know how to properly treat their older team members.
- Reduced work hours. Providing shorter working hours and greater flexibility with selected shifts to facilitate the transition into retirement.
- Redesign job role. Assisting older workers to adapt to modern work environments and allowing for them to be reskilled in areas that need increased resources.
Managing changing capabilities
Managers must be aware that legally, to reduce hours or change responsibilities of an older worker, as with any other employee, they have to prove that the individual is underperforming.
John Boardman, Director Workplace Relations at iHR Australia stresses, “An employer would be in breach of the ADA if they were to change an employee’s role based on the employee’s age and not their performance. Consistent with any other member of an organisation, managers should be performance managing staff to establish that they either are or aren’t performing to the standard required.”
If an older employee is proven to be underperforming, as an alternative to disciplinary action, managers can seek to negotiate an alternative arrangement with the employee to adjust to their changing capabilities.
Mr Boardman adds, “If a particular role no longer suits an aging employee, Managers could discuss a mutually beneficial arrangement, such as modifications to responsibilities or flexible work hours.”
In a recent Fair Work case, a Victorian Police Officer won the right to a flexible work arrangement of four ten hour shifts per week. As always, it is best to be proactive in these scenarios than risk potential litigation where such a decision will be made by the court.
While it will become increasingly common for businesses to feel the pressures of an aging workforce, avoiding any breach of the ADA will be imperative. The challenges presented can be effectively managed and organisations can adapt to ensure that they are meeting production requirements, while looking after the welfare of their older employees.