Will flexibility make the boomers the working poor?

by 24 Jul 2012

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 mking@access.net.au




  • by Shane Higgins 25/07/2012 8:20:52 AM

    Malcolm is spot on with what increased flexibility in the workforce means, and the fact that the outcome may not be at all what workers want. In a perfect world it would be flexibility that suits both the worker and the employer but still has a high level of security. The figures however show that over the years the numbers of casuals, contractors and temps has increased hugely. The impact of insecure work on any worker is enormous. It affects their ability to get loans for houses, vehicles etc and doesn't allow any long term planning. It also rarely affords the employer any loyalty from the worker.
    Older workers are particularly affected and this will only increase with the current challenging economy. I own the only national website that has jobs placed by age-friendly employers www.olderworkers.com.au and many of our employers understand that if they are looking to harness the benefits and experience of older workers that it will increase their applicant pool if they offer flexibility to their workers. This is not new, but it is still a point of considerable discussion and will continue to be given the ageing population, ageing workforce and skill/labour shortage. Unfortunately the majority of older workers still working are doing so because they have to. Many of them have small amounts of superannuation, particularly women, and simply don't have enough to live on. Many are also keen to work, to keep active physically and mentally. Flexibility is a key issue for older workers and parents looking for work that will allow them to address other responsibilities,issues and interests.
    This issue needs to continue to be raised and discussed. It needs to be worked through until there is agreement with employers that, as Malcolm so rightly puts it, "flexibility is for workers, not of workers". The counter argument by some industry groups that says if older workers want flexibility then this will disadvantage them as jobseekers is a scare tactic and one that does not appreciate the experience and skills that older workers bring to the workplace.

  • by Heidi Holmes 25/07/2012 9:09:27 AM

    Full time work is still important to many mature age workers as well. Over 60% of our jobseekers on adage.com.au have a preference for full time work.

  • by Louise Bale 25/07/2012 11:17:39 AM

    An excellent bit of commentary. This is a pressing problem (casualisation of workforce). Its heartening to know people are looking over the horizon at workforces of the future. We should have done that 30 years ago and we wouldn't be in the mess were in now.

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