09:23 am, Monday 7 April, 2008
An extended working life is expected to become the norm in coming years and early research into what is shaping as a historic sociological phenomenon is starting to clarify some of the central challenges and opportunities that an older workforce will generate.
One observation already noted is an increasing variation in people’s abilities as they get older.
Professor Philip Taylor, director of the Business, Work and Ageing Centre for Research at Swinburne University of Technology, says that in terms of job performance, wellbeing and skills, older workers are a much less homogenous group than younger workers.
For Australian employers, who are becoming more reliant on the participation of older workers, that reality creates two challenges: how workplaces can accommodate those variations, and how to minimise the risk of workers losing competencies and abilities as they age.
Part of the answer may be in preparing workers when they are younger, for a longer working life.
“Policy around ageing workers needs to be about maintaining the ‘work ability’ of people throughout their life-course – not just once they are older,” Professor Taylor says. “It’s about life-long learning and about how factors such as job design, work environment and skills training determine the condition in which workers arrive at the age of 50.”
The Business, Work and Ageing Centre for Research at Swinburne was set up in 2001 to look at the economic and social consequences of workforce ageing. In the 1980s the emphasis was on early retirement as a way of making room for younger workers, but from the mid-1990s governments grew concerned about the threats of an ageing population and its impact on the costs of social welfare and on the possibility of labour shortages. “One way to deal with these problems was to extend people’s working lives,” Professor Taylor says.
But encouraging people to work longer requires employers to adjust their attitudes and practices to accommodate to the needs of their older workers: “Many managers don’t understand how to manage older workers because so many were divested from the workforce in the 1980s.”
There’s an assumption, for instance, that older workers are not interested in, or capable of, further training, but Professor Taylor says the centre’s research has shown there is no evidence of that.
“What the evidence does show is that older workers prefer a different style of training than younger workers. For instance, they prefer hands-on practical training rather than classroom-style training.”
The centre has been involved in a number of major projects to help businesses adapt to the needs of older workers, and to help older workers adapt to the need to extend their working lives. The Redesigning Work for an Ageing Society project, which received funding under the Australian Research Council Linkages Scheme, has partnered with companies including Qantas, RACV, Laminex and the Australian Catholic University, to identify factors within a workplace and within individuals that affect so-called ‘work ability’. The ‘work ability’ model was developed by the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health (FIOH) and takes the view that a person’s fitness for work combines a life-long process of building skills and competencies with the physical, mental and social demands created by the work environment.
Another of the centre’s projects, Managing Employment Pathways to Reintegrate Older Workers, is headed by the director of research, Dr Elizabeth Brooke, and aims to help older unemployed workers reintegrate into the workforce. Funded by the VicHealth Public Health Research Fellowship, the project is targeting workers aged 45 and over who have become involuntarily unemployed, as well as injured older workers, volunteers and others unsuccessful in their efforts to return to work.
“We are wanting to work with people who for whatever reason have had a discontinuous work experience,” Dr Brooke says.
The project aims to identify barriers that prevent people reintegrating into the workforce and to develop a program to support them to rebuild the confidence and skills needed to re-enter and stay in employment.
With its holistic approach to employment services, the project starts from the premise that wellbeing and self-perception are as important to an individual’s employability as are skills and competencies. “Currently, there is no employment services model that takes a holistic integrated approach across healthy lifestyle promotion and motivational factors, including self-perceptions of capacity, skills and age awareness,” Dr Brooke says.
The project will partner with existing community services to provide healthy-lifestyle and confidence-building programs as well as skills training. Dr Brooke is recruiting participants to the program this year. Participants will be helped into employment within the aged care sector and, once employed, will be monitored to identify what factors, if any, impact on their retention in the workplace. “These may, for example, include more flexible working arrangements, better ergonomics or rotation of tasks to prevent repetitive strain injuries,” she says.
Professor Taylor says another major issue for older workers is a sense of exclusion from the workplace. “Our research shows that older workers often feel they are being pushed out by not being invited to take part in training, meetings or other workplace events.” This will become an increasing issue as more workers take advantage of transition-to-retirement arrangements that allow them to work part-time. “Part-time work is often not seen as real work. Managers need to be re-educated to respect different kinds of working arrangements and accept that older workers have a great deal to contribute to the workplace.”
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