A rethink on ageing and work

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As business woman and journalist Ita Buttrose stepped down from her position as Australian of the year 2013, she urged people and business to support older Australians in the fight against age discrimination.

Buttrose is encouraging a rethink on what it means to age in the 21st century. “Given our ageing population and declining welfare purse, we should be encouraging mature age workers to stay in the workforce, not precluding them, and valuing them for the knowledge, wisdom and experience they can bring to the workplace,” she said.

In Australia, children born today will live well into their 90s, and the number of Australians older than 75 will increase by 4 million – roughly the population of Sydney or Melbourne – over the next 50 years. Most of us will age, and what we urgently need is a public conversation that embraces the challenges of our ageing societies.

The Productivity Commission has proposed a lift in the pension age from 65 to 70 years in an effort to save $150 billion in welfare and health spending. The idea of working till we reach 70 years or longer is great if we are well and if there are jobs for us to do. Jobs such as nursing, teaching, cleaning and other manual jobs are not easy to perform when bodies wear out.

Rather than looking at the growing numbers of ageing citizens as a problem, we need to start thinking about the swelling demographic in a more positive light.  The idea of retiring to the bowls club, or sitting on the couch in front of the TV for twenty years or more is not a future that many of us desire. Ita Buttrose agrees: “It’s time we stopped thinking that life stops at 65 and recognise that older people make an important contribution to our society.”

What we need is appropriate work as we age, traditionally regarded as a time when we are ‘too old to work and too young to die’. In the U.S. 9 million Americans are involved in courses aiming to move them into second careers. Marc Freedman, the founder of Encore, a movement established to make it easier for millions of people to pursue second acts, has written about this in his new book The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage beyond Midlife. In this book he offers a recipe for how America’s coming midlife crisis can be transformed into a midlife opportunity. Millions of people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies are searching for answers to the question- what’s next?

Freedman has a term for this stage of life: The Encore Period, a time when we are neither young but not old; a time when we need to morph into different careers and into work that is paid but rewarding, and where we are able to use our former experience for the betterment of society. Freedman maintains that the Encore period, this new stage of life resulting from our increased life expectancy, presents the wider world with a challenge, to get it right. He calls on governments to appreciate the need for new programmes for seniors, establishing pathways leading to age appropriate work. Just as governments offer internships to the young, the working aged will need to be helped to move into ‘second act’ careers that might involve education, the health industries and the environment.

The media has a big part to play in how society regards the aged. Journalism has to take seriously stories about the ageing, presenting positive stories, or even talking about this stage of life at all really. How long is it since you have read a positive story about a 65 year-old woman, actively working and loving it?

Maybe the 65 year – old woman would like the chance to be actively engaged in meaningful work when she’s 70. In which case she’ll need both society and business interests to support her morphing into a new working life.

This  conversation has only just begun!

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