Surge of older women re-entering the workforce

by Stephanie Zillman11 Apr 2012

New research by a Sydney-based micro-economist has identified marked growth in the workforce participation rate of women in their 50s and 60s – not because of a love of working, but because they don’t have enough cash to retire.

Women are both staying in their jobs longer and returning to work after realising their retirement was not yet viable, consultant Carolyn Evans said. “We asked a series of women in that age group why they were working and almost without exception … they had to come back to work, or they were going to retire and when they did the numbers they realised didn't have enough to live on,” she said. According to the researcher, many women interviewed were going back to work in 'top up super' mode”.

The good news for HR is that there is a strong source of experienced talent flowing into the market, though Evans warned that because many women in this age category are being financially forced to re-enter the workforce, specialised engagement tactics for this sector are required. “Those we spoke to across the board largely were making a positive and willing choice to work part time or casual instead of full time, not wanting to commit to all the weight of another full-time role,” Evans added.

SageCo, a specialist agency which partners with organisations to address the risks, challenges and opportunities of an ageing workforce, has data which adds weight to the sentiment that the older workforce wants to work flexibly, and is not simply resentful or longing to retire.

Alison Monroe from SageCo said data recently assembled from the opinions of 2,500 workers aged 50+ indicated that older employees want to stay employed, but under flexible working conditions. She said overwhelmingly their studies have shown that if older workers feel valued, they generally want to remain employed either on a full-time non-fixed-hour working week, part-time or under other flexible work scenarios.  

On the 2010/2011 data, 81% stated they would continue to work if they could work differently. “The problem is that the conversation is not taking place,” Monroe said.

It is essential for leaders to be talking to the mature members of the team and gauging their future work intentions rather than their ‘retirement intentions’, which sends the wrong message. Given some 300,000 Australians past the age of 65 are in the workforce, Monroe said, HR can do many things to specifically enhance engagement among older workers, namely:

1. Have ‘the conversation’: It is important to equip leaders with skills and capabilities to have conversations with older workers about their career path intentions. Leaders often fear addressing the topic, but it’s important to stress future working intentions not retirement. These conversations should be taking place regardless of age.

2. Improve flexibility: Flexibility means something different to each individual. Some prefer certain days of each week, while others prefer certain months of each year. Many are interested in mobile work options, so these should be investigated.

3. Look at job re-design: Working differently doesn’t just refer to working hours. Older workers really want to focus in on their areas of expertise. They may want to get back into their original areas of interest, such as why they went into particular lines of work in the first place.

4. Share their skills: SageCo said it has discovered that the older generation wants the opportunity to share their skills, experience and knowledge. Ways to do so can be very simple. For example, a knowledge sharing breakfast or simply putting 10 minutes on the agenda for specific input at meetings. Some simple knowledge-sharing techniques can really help engagement levels.

5. Have processes to assist transitions: Employers know that employees are overwhelmingly underprepared for retirement. Organisations should invest time in helping to plan and act on issues relating to transition. Specific focus areas include career direction and development, health and wellbeing, improving financial literacy and a work/life plan.


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  • by Shane Higgins 11/04/2012 3:30:05 PM

    We recently did a survey of our 15,000 registered jobseekers on our job board and 50% of the respondents were women looking for work. Over 30% of our respondents said they would never retire. We notice the numbers of women registering on our job board continues to increase. The information above is great for many of those who are already in work, but a large number of these women may not have worked for quite a few years and now find themselves in the position of having to develop a CV that will get them in the door of employers. A difficult thing to do at any age, but even more so as an older worker. However, we have a database of over 1200 age-friendly employers that is growing by the day, so the word is getting out there.

  • by Heidi Holmes 11/04/2012 4:09:15 PM

    This story is doing the rounds in many different formats and while they are interesting statistics, are they really that surprising? We need to be selling the benefits of mature age women (work/life experience, diminishing caring responsibilities, loyalty and maturity) rather than constantly telling employers what these workers 'want'. Many just want an opportunity to be considered for a job. It is important to have strategies in place for retention purposes but there is a greater conversation to be had around the business case for employing maturity.
    I have now taken over, a leading job board for experienced workers over 45 from the original founders at SageCo and we are working hard to change negative perceptions about this talent pool. The average age of our jobseeker is 51 so language like "older workers" does not resonate with this market and only feeds into negative stereotypes.
    For business to change behaviour it always needs to be about the value for the business and in this instance, this talent pool represents a whole lot of value!

  • by Pam Gulbis 11/04/2012 5:08:10 PM

    I am an "older worker" and I continue to work full time and find it hard to contemplate leaving the workforce because I'm a certain age. I agree with the comments made by both Shane and Heidi and would go on to say that much more needs to be done to remind employers and senior managers of the value of this talent pool and perhaps not treat us as invisible and not able to keep up with current practices and thinking. Many of my more mature colleagues including myself really do enjoy change and the opportunity to become involved.

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