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Highlights from the recent Age and Work Symposium November 2018

From the 1500s onward, till around the year 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years of age. Thomas Hobbs the 17th century British Philosopher described life at the time as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Even at the turn of the 20th century a quarter of babies in Europe didn’t make it past their 5th birthday. Of children who did survive to the age of 18 around twenty per cent were orphaned.

A woman born in New Zealand in 1876 could have expected to live to approximately 54, for a man it was 50. Born in Australia in 1890 a man could have expected to live to 47 and a woman 51. One hundred and forty years on life expectancy at birth for an Australian male is now 80 and for a female 85. There are those who are suggesting life expectancy in the foreseeable could reach over 120. While we have always aged what is changing is longevity, we are living longer healthier lives.

The Inaugural Age and Work Symposium held in Brisbane in November explored what this silent revolution would mean for work. Initiated by Geoff Pearman from Partners in Change and Katrina Walton of Wellness Designs the symposium aimed to start a different conversation around age and work. Based in Dunedin Geoff Pearman works in New Zealand and Australia in the field of age and work. Katrina Walton is a thought leader and strategist in corporate wellness, living in Brisbane she has clients in both countries. The symposium brought together 100 people, comprising thought leaders, a wide range of professionals and policy makers working in business, community and Government from New Zealand and Australia.

Opened by the Hon Shannon Fentiman, the Queensland Government Minister for Employment, Small Business, Skills Development and Training, the symposium was a mix of scene setting keynotes, practical sessions on topics such as mental health, workplace flexibility, financial wellbeing, health and wellbeing, alternative work options as well as employer case studies and mini workshops. The symposium concluded with a panel of leaders who discussed the challenges as we look ahead.

Discussion on population ageing up until recently has focussed on the broader demographic shifts taking place and has tended to be dominated by a health perspective. This has inevitably led to discussions on the demand for aged care, increasing healthcare costs and  pension affordability. Governments often cast the ageing of the population as a phenomena to be “managed” with unhelpful and flawed aspersions by economists and journalists that the system will collapse under the weight of the so called “silver tsunami”.

“The current narrative surrounding the ageing of the population and workforce is inadequate” suggests Pearman. “It is based on outmoded ways of thinking underpinned by a view that population ageing is going produce many more older people being older longer who need to be managed.”

One writer has suggested “there is a cottage industry of doomsayers – thinkers, analysts, journalists and organisations who decry the “grey dawn”. The term silver tsunami, seismic shift…. – the shift that is going to bankrupt economies, stifle innovation and devastate health systems.” However the dire forecasts they make are predicated on a view ageing as an amplified replay of our grandparents old age.

The “boomer” demographic is doing it differently. Many are shunning what Pearman terms the linear view of the life course, 20 years of education and training, 40 years of work, family and getting ahead and then 10 years of the golden dream – “three score years and ten”. Longevity is changing all that, but is it to be retirement extended from 10 to 30 years or more? The challenge in light of longevity is to reimagine the life course and to shift away from a linear sequential view. This has implications in all areas of life; work, relationships, finances, health, housing and leisure to mention a few.

Clare Hall Taylor, a social trends researcher from HT Group presented her ground-breaking research in which she interviewed 60 New Zealanders aged 55-70. She identified five different orientations to life with the dominant theme being that as people reach this life stage retirement is not what dominates their thinking, rather they are focussed on freedom and having choice. One of the most consistent findings across the study was that Baby Boomers felt younger than their years, even when suffering from ill health or physical deterioration. This is a group that has a strong disconnect between inner vitality and physical ageing.

Focusing on the ageing of the workforce, internationally recognised age and work researcher and policy commentator Professor Philip Taylor from Melbourne argued that current advocacy and public policy settings are inadequate if economies want to maximise the opportunity of an ageing workforce. “They are simply not working and we need new thinking, not just more of the same”.

He postulates that much older worker advocacy is muddled. “Age-based stereotypes (such as loyal, reliable, wise) are often used by older people’s advocates to promote the benefits of hiring older workers, but recent research has shown that these stereotypes may be reinforcing already existing negative views of older workers among employers.” This has potentially important implications for efforts to overcome age discrimination by employers. He suggests “somewhat ironically, age advocacy itself has been bedevilled by a notable tendency towards ageism, drawing, for instance, on age stereotypes in making the case for older labour.”

Taylor also reflects that the push by Governments to extend working lives has the potential to stigmatise those who retire from the paid workforce for a whole range of legitimate reasons, including health or workability reasons, as no longer pulling their weight in a society where being retired is increasingly viewed as a kind of unemployment.

Taylor also demonstrated that demographics are driving an accelerating gap between labour demand and supply in most economies and will require retention strategies. Pearman in his keynote drew on international research to show that while many companies notionally recognise they have an ageing workforce, very few have strategies in place to retain valued employees. In New Zealand the CFFC survey of over 500 employers found only 17 per cent had age related policies or practices. A PwC Global CEO survey, found that of companies that had diversity and inclusion policies only 8 per cent had initiatives relating to age.

The American Society for Human Resource Management carried out a major study in 2014 in which it surveyed Human Resource professionals. They identified four concerning trends amongst HR professionals. A short term mindset, a lack of urgency despite the demographics, a lack of workforce planning and forecasting, and older workers not being included in diversity categories for recruitment purposes. Despite recognising this was a significant and emerging challenge only 4 per cent had a strategy to retain employees as they age at work, with 3 per cent having a formal strategy to recruit older workers.

The consensus at the Age and Work Symposium was clear. A new language and way of thinking about age and work is needed if we are to embrace the benefits and opportunities of longevity. Bold policies will be needed at Government level and from business. Innovative case studies at the symposium showed it could be done.

This is a conversation that must extend into innovative public policy and find voice through informed political leadership. Business and industry initiatives that recognise increased longevity in the context of the life course are needed. All underpinned by a narrative that affirms and celebrates the opportunities longevity affords.

Inspired by the challenge Dr John Beard of the World Health Organisation made at the recent International Federation of Ageing conference to start a global conversation that supports people as they age, Geoff Pearman and Katrina Walton were determined that the Age and Work Symposium would stimulate a different conversation around age and work. Hence the launch of the hashtag #celebratelongevity. A call to embrace longevity, explore the opportunities and implications as we reimagine age and work.

“So grateful to be part of this event. Such an important topic and one that ALL employers and employees need to invest more in. Let’s help all people thrive and be their best!”

“The issues talked about in relation to older workers, are similar for any age e.g. flexibility, health and wellbeing, career pathways that offer variety and allow people to flourish. It’s a longevity thing, not an age thing. If we get it right for ‘older’ workers, we will get it right for everyone.”

Geoff Pearman, Managing Director, Partners in Change

Geoff Pearman is the Managing Director & Principal Consultant of Partners in Change, a Trans Tasman organisational & workforce development consultancy.

Geoff specialises in assisting organisations to strategically position themselves for the age-wave. He uses innovative approaches to assist organisations meet the challenge of boomers remaining in the workforce & to meet upcoming skills shortages. Geoff also offers consultancy & runs workshops in stakeholder engagement.