The Australian Council of Trade Unions, in a recent submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission, has called on employers to provide more flexible working hours for older workers.
Currently, the right to flexible working arrangements such as shorter hours, days off or early or late starts, is restricted to parents of preschool children and those who care for a disabled person aged under 16.
It is estimated that about 40% of the two million boomers will continue to work past 65 - but what sort of future awaits them?
In a global economy where billions of dollars of work and trades are done over the Internet every day and night, why can’t older employees work from home one day a week?
Why can’t a mature age worker spend a day or two caring for his or her ageing mother or father at home rather than in a retirement village?
Why can’t college and university students work as juniors in their intended career and attend day classes rather than having to flip burgers and conform to a work/study roster that defies logic?
Alas, flexibility has more than one meaning. There is a big distinction between flexibility of workers and flexibility for workers. Many companies treat labour like any other commodity. But labour can’t be divorced from a worker. Workers come attached to the labour they supply.
Of course many boomers will simply continue to work in their current jobs. Some will be sacked due to ageist attitudes, while others will retire without seeking financial advice. Many of those will be forced to return to the labour market poorer and wiser, and face the ageist attitudes of some recruiters.
The fragmentation of the Australian workplace will continue. We will see more temporary contracts and casual work. For some older workers, this will be fine. But many will find, like their grand children, that relying on temporary work is chaotic and alienating.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Journal of Social Indicators, since 1884, casual employment in Australia has grown from 15% of the workforce to 25%.
There has been an explosion of independent contractors (people such as cleaners) who now make up 10% of workers. The number of people in non-permanent jobs is about 40 per cent of the workforce - about four million Australians.
Guy Standing, in his book The Precariat, (a ‘precarious proletariat’) says that the working poor consists of three main groups - those falling out of working-class jobs and communities, those who accept insecurity because they have never had any, and those who are educated and are experiencing status frustration.
The dynamic Standing refers to imposes flexibility on older and younger workers. It dictates, “these are the jobs we have, if you don’t like the pay or conditions, good bye”.
While Standing makes some extraordinary unsourced claims about the rise and dangers of the ‘precariat’, there is no doubt that both white collar and blue collar boomers can expect to join the contracted ‘labour for hire’ sector over the next 20 years as companies continue to externalise risk.
The ACTU recognises that insecure work is on the rise. It is fighting to secure the rights for casual and temporary workers by providing all workers with a universal set of protections and entitlements.
In May 2012 the Sydney University business school workplace research centre found in studies of cleaners (mainly women) that on average, a commercial cleaner aged 45 will have only the equivalent of one year’s salary saved in superannuation for retirement.
Older workers are anxious, because they face risks everywhere they turn and the biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty. Changing the Fair Work Act and EBAs to allow mature age workers to work in different modes will be driven not only by desire of the boomers but also labour market forces.
Flexibility needs to be for workers, not of workers.
About the author
Malcolm King is Director, Republic (Generational Workforce Dynamics), Australia. He works in the area of generational workforce change. He was an associate director in the DEEWR Mature Age Programs in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org