19 February 2021


SUBJECT: The silent crisis facing older workers.

JOHN LAWS, HOST: Yeah, talking about people, I imagine a lot of people haven't heard about the plight of workers aged over 55. You know, they're almost the forgotten people that are plagued by an unemployment rate three times that of the national average. Are you aware that? Are you aware of that? Over 55? Unemployment rates that are three times that of the national average. Fifty-five to 64-year-olds face these significant barriers when they're trying to assess the workforce, especially when they're having to compete with younger people. And it leaves a lot of people broke. In poverty. And suffering. A man who’s recognised this, and has asked to come on the program in order to get the issue on the agenda in Canberra, and as he asked to come on the program, of course we don't deny him the opportunity, the Shadows Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones is on the line. Stephen, are you there? 

STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Yes, I am. Good to be with you John. 

LAWS: Okay. Good to meet you. Are you worried about the unemployment rate, that it’s higher for 55 to 64-year-olds? Is that only a natural consequence of people ageing?

JONES: No it’s not John. I'm calling it a silent crisis because nobody's talking about it. We talk about youth unemployment. And so we should. Youth unemployment rate, 13 percent. Jobless rate in workers over the age of 55, 20 percent. And if we don't talk about it, nobody's going to craft the solutions. These workers face discrimination in the labour market. Often when there's a downsizing or restructuring or redundancy going on in a workplace they’re the first ones out the door. I argue they've got the skills, they've got experience and they should be treated fairly in the workplace. But nothing is happening, and I want to see much greater attention from Government policy on this group of older workers. 

LAWS: Okay, but when they get up around 55 to 64 years of age, and that's what you're talking about, isn't it a natural consequence of people thinking well, it might, but certainly not 55 but maybe 64, maybe I should think about retiring? Isn't that sort of natural attrition? 

JONES: Look there are definitely some within that age group, but they're not represented in the 20 percent figure. This 20% figure includes people who are unemployed, so they're looking for work. They want a job but they can't get it. They might be people that are on a carer’s benefit or people on disability support. But over half the people who lose their job, who are employed in this age group, are made involuntarily redundant, they’ve involuntarily lost their job and they're trying to get back into the workforce. And look I just think if we've got a country based on the fact that we throw people on the scrap heaps once they turn 55, if they lose their job, then that's not good enough. We're missing out as a country on their skills, their wisdom and their experience. And as we're living longer, we’ve got to design things to ensure that people can work longer if they choose to.

LAWS: Yeah, okay, but what percentage of the population falls into that category? 

JONES: It’s about two million Australians John, who are in that over the age of 55. About two million Australians. 

LAWS: A lot more women than men I imagine?

JONES: Yes. There are more women than men who are unemployed in that age group. And the thing that is alarming is they take twice as long to find another job. And you know, the rate of poverty in that age group is really just alarming. One in three single women over the age of 60 are living in poverty. 

LAWS: Poverty is a very, very strong word. Is that really the case? Are they living in absolute poverty? That's a very strong word.

JONES: I can’t think of another word to use if somebody can't afford to pay their bills, is perhaps homeless and living in the back of a car or couch surfing, out of work and facing continuous discrimination in the labour market. I can't think of a stronger word. I think poverty is absolutely the right word to describe people living in those circumstances. 

LAWS: Okay, so what's the solution? You've told me the problem, now what's the solution? 

JONES: There's a bunch of things we've got to do John. Firstly, can we just get this silly idea we can cut the dole in a few weeks’ time, we can cut unemployment rates back to $40 a day? That's not going to help the problem, it’s going to make it worse. So that's the first thing we've got to do. Get this idea that we cut people superannuation, get that off the table as well. And let's just get to the real solutions. The Job Network isn't working for this group of people. The old CES job network is not working. So we've got to have more specialist services for older workers. We've got to really lean into this issue of anti-discrimination in the labour market. This view that older workers can’t adapt, or older workers can't do the job. They absolutely can, and I'd reckon you'd be an advocate for that John.

LAWS: Yeah, sure. 

JONES: What I think is that the Government has got to be a model and lead by example here. Too often, there's a whole raft of workers who are on Government contract, who are employed directly by the Government on short-term contracts. When the contract ends, it's the older workers that get the chop and they're discriminated in those areas as well. So there’s four ideas. I'm sure your listeners have a whole bunch more that we could lean into to ensure we improve the lot for older workers in this country. 

LAWS: Yeah, I've observed that Bunnings are very, very good at employing older people. How do we encourage other people, other employers to go the Bunnings way?

JONES: Bunnings is great. There's a whole bunch of old tradies, older tradies, who maybe their knees are gone or they can't stand being out in the sun anymore or their back’s gone, but they can certainly help weekend warriors like myself find the right bolt, the right screw, the right length of length of timber. And that's a perfect example of how we're using the knowledge, skills of older Australians and keeping them in a job. We want more of it not less. 

LAWS: I suppose a lot of people don't have adequate superannuation?

JONES: Absolutely right. Average retirement balance for a woman at retirement $120,000. A male, a bit closer to $180,000. If we’re living in to our late 80s or 90s, that's not going to be nearly enough. Just by way of example, the Prime Minister will accrue more than that in two years, will accrue more in two years than the average Australian's going to retire with. So this idea that we can cut superannuation, and not do what the Prime Minister has promised, and keep the move to 12% is just got to be done away with. If promises that politicians make are going to matter, then they have to be kept to. Prime minister promised this. He's got to live up to his promise. 

LAWS: Mmm. Well politics is politics, you know. You're smart enough to know that Stephen Jones. 

JONES: Look I am. But if we're to believe anything the Prime Minister says between now and the next election, then he has to keep the promises that he made before the last election. And he promised that he would leave superannuation alone. 

LAWS: Yep.

JONES: That he wouldn’t cut super. That people would get the money they are owed. So he's got to live up to the promise, otherwise we can't believe anything else he says as we walk into the next election. And I think that matters

LAWS: Women seem to bear the brunt of the figures that you've been discussing. Why are women more affected than men?

JONES: A couple of things. They may take more time out of the workforce for family responsibilities. That's changing, but it hasn't changed for people who are currently in that 55 to 64 age group. So that's one of the things. The other thing that we're seeing is the greatest growth in homelessness is women over the age of 50. So families breakup, the woman's left with a raw deal and is left out a pocket. So we're seeing that appear in the numbers as well. And also, the sorts of industries where people are laying off workers, particularly service and white-collar industries where they're downsizing, more women than men working the in those areas. So it's gone in waves. You know I come from Wollongong, grew up in Wollongong. We saw the big unemployment waves come through the steel and the mining industry in the 80s and 90s. We saw that that pattern there. Those people who lost their jobs struggled to find another one. We're going to another wave of it now.