Good-bye gold watch: How mature-age employees are changing the workforce

Older workers often hold key business relationships that are pivotal in organisations

Australian businesses must engage and employ an ageing population in order to offset a decline in labour participation, a skills shortage and to boost economic and income growth. Here’s why.

Occasionally Hollywood gets it right. In the 2015 comedy, The Intern, Robert De Niro’s 70-year-old character returns to work following a premature retirement.

After the inevitable teething problems, the senior citizen slowly wins over the millennials on staff, bringing a balanced and reflective approach to the e-commerce company’s thinking. The old man may not know who Jay Z is, but he sure knows how to solve a problem or two.

“They’ve forecast the future,” says Victorian-based certified financial planner Alf Priestley, a passionate believer in the energised role a mature-age worker can fill in the modern workplace. 

As the global business landscape continues to evolve, Priestley expects older people to take advantage – a development he calls “refirement”.

“Older workers have already made the discovery through past experience that change is just a part of life,” says Priestley. 

“They bring a different energy to the workplace: they’re calmer, more purposeful, more focused, they’re often more effective at translating new business direction into meaningful actions and they’re not looking for the next promotion.”

Related: Is 'refirement' the new retirement?

Over the next 10 years, a decreasing number of young people will enter the workforce and an increasing number of older workers will stay in, or return to, work. According to the Australian Government’s 2015 Intergenerational Report, the number of Australians aged 70 years and over is expected to almost triple over the next 40 years, hitting close to seven million people by 2055. 

Furthermore, workforce participation rates of people over 65 are projected to increase from 12.9 per cent in 2014-15 to 17.3 per cent in 2054-55.

Significant policy reform in areas such as health, social welfare and retirement incomes, and workplace and labour market policies will be required to cope with the pace of change.

The experience of a lifetime

Over their working lifetime, many older people have accumulated valuable business knowledge and a wide variety of skills. Capable of offering a different operational perspective, mature-age workers can improve processes and provide mentoring and training to less experienced employees. 

Studies have revealed that, contrary to popular belief, older workers are productive, present for work more regularly, are more engaged in their jobs and are least likely to be distracted by social media and new technologies.

Priestley believes a strategically thinking mature-age worker has the capacity to create additional value, potentially opening up new markets and possibilities. 

Related: 80 is the new 60 when it comes to work and retirement 

“Older workers often hold key business relationships that are pivotal in organisations,” he says.

“From a servicing perspective, these are critical to long-term success.

“On another level, given the growing baby boomer market, businesses would want to appeal to that market. There’s a level of trust when you’re dealing with someone your own age, so it would make sense to have staff reflecting that.”

Act on discrimination

Despite the benefits of mature-age workers, many employers and hiring agencies continue to discriminate on the basis of age, classifying workers as old before they reach their 50s. 
When women in their 40s are investing their nest eggs in cosmetic surgery procedures  to boost employability, nothing less than a cultural transformation needs to take place.

The future challenge is creating sound public policy, collaboration between private and public sectors and inspirational leaders who embrace diversity and encourage workplace flexibility. 

“The key is for government to raise awareness of the fact that a lot of older people would like to continue working, and stressing the benefits of that to the economy,” says Priestley.

HR has a role to play

Human resources departments may need to tweak policy to keep pace with the demands of an ageing workforce. Strategies to monitor older staff will require development; retirement planning has to be managed effectively; and appropriate systems need to be put in place to reflect age-diversity.

“Generally speaking, the systems, processes and procedures within an organisation have been written for a younger workforce,” says Priestley. 

“A degree of flexibility should be written into a work contract. 

“The same could be said for partnership agreements in large professional services firms where KPIs are designed purely on productivity. Those targets are all about producing revenue for the now, but they’re not really designed for an older person who might be more strategic in nature.”

The big gig

Employers today are offered a range of incentives to hire mature-age workers. The Federal Department of Employment specifically provides the Restart Wage Subsidy, offering up to A$10,000 for employers who employ and retain eligible job seekers aged 50 years and over. 

However, the initiative was designed to attract more than 30,000 employers, but fewer than 3000 have reportedly taken up the offer so far.

In many cases, older workers are turning to the “gig economy”, a term to describe the on-demand nature of independent contractors taking short-term engagements. This concept allows workers to choose their own projects, schedules and hours. 

Depending on who you’re speaking to, the global gig economy is either growing or overstated as a force. US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently said the gig economy “is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation, but it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

On a purely personal level, the gig economy has become a convenient way for baby boomers to bolster income during their “refirement” years. 

Uber recruitment is increasingly targeting seniors, with nearly one quarter of US drivers aged over 50, according to a 2014/15 survey. In Australia, the company is actively sourcing drivers from senior ranks.

“If businesses won’t employ you, go freelance,” says Priestley. “A site such as is an example of a service that can connect businesses with older workers, but all this must start from the boomers themselves. 

“It’s up to each and every one to demonstrate and articulate the value and leadership they bring to the table.”

This is part two in a series that explores the evolving nature of retirement and its impact on the workplace. Read part one, Is ‘refirement’ the new retirement?

Read next: Retirement report card: Does your country make the grade?

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December 2021
December 2021

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