Don't mention the R word! Strategies for older workers' third acts.

Societal attitudes towards older workers are becoming more positive, and that’s something older workers can use to give them ammunition and confidence.

Fewer of us are retiring in the traditional sense of leaving the workforce entirely. Nowadays, older workers are often semi-retired, reducing their hours or taking freelance or part-time gigs that give them time for travel and other pursuits.

At a glance

  • In Australia, about 67 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women aged between 55 and 64 are still in the workforce.
  • Societal attitudes to older workers are becoming more positive.
  • Transitioning to part-time work with a current employer is a conversation that should start early.
  • Requests for flexibility should be supported with a solid business case.

Jack Flanagan CPA has had an extensive career in accounting and finance, including project analysis, company secretary and tax specialist roles, as well as having been an academic for 30 years.

At 61, he retired – sort of. A decade later, he’s busier than he’s ever been.

“I cut my teaching hours in half before I retired and took a three-year half-time contract at the University of Notre Dame after previously teaching at Western Sydney University and the Australian Catholic University. It was a good move as it enabled me to focus on the teaching and research aspects of university life.”

He has also taught in the MBA program at the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales for many years, and still teaches the odd course there.

When he reduced his full-time role, Flanagan decided to take on more charity work. He was a director and then trustee of Catholic Healthcare for many years, and a director of St Lucy’s School, a school for children with intellectual disabilities. He is currently a member of the council of Sydney College of Divinity and deputy chair of CPA Australia’s Third Age Network.

An emeritus professor, he has used his “spare” time to do more research and to write with his wife Carol. They have already published two books, Working Parents: Happy Families and Happily Ever After: A Guide to the Best Aged Care for the People You Love.

“I’ve also had a model boat for 15 years that I’m planning to build when I get time,” he laughs.

“I love my current life – a mix of paid employment and charitable work – and I’ve said to my wife I should have moved to part-time work earlier. I did not find the difference in money significant, as the children had grown and moved on.”

Remaining in the workforce, or rejoining it, requires a carefully planned strategy, however.

You’ll need to ensure you remain a marketable commodity, reviewing everything from your skills and experience to your ability to work as part of a team.

Attitudes towards older workers are changing

The global population aged 60 years or over numbered 962 million in 2017, and is expected to double by 2050 to nearly 2.1 billion, according to the United Nations.

Perhaps driven by the sheer force of baby boomer numbers and influence, societal attitudes towards older workers are becoming more positive, and that’s something older workers can use to give them ammunition and confidence.

A 2018 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that more than 34 per cent of 922 Australian Human Resources Institute members questioned believed there was no difference between older (61 years or greater) and younger workers’ technology skills and abilities, 14 per cent more than in 2014. They also felt older workers had more experience (76 per cent) and professional knowledge (68 per cent).

"You may have had a demanding role and want to scale down. Or you may want to take that same amount of energy to the next phase of your career." Danijela Glogovac, Mindset coach

In Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, fewer than one worker in 10 was aged over 55. Today that number is about one in five. About 67 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women aged between 55 and 64 are still in the workforce, while for those who are 65 or older, that figure is 20 per cent for men and 10 per cent for women.

Worldwide, companies such as Nike, H&M, Barclays, Suntec Singapore, Johnson & Johnson and McDonalds are all being recognised for age-friendly HR approaches.

In Hong Kong, the Society for the Aged (SAGE) has held a series of job expos exclusively for older workers, while in Japan, a public-private partnership called the Silver Human Resource Centers helps retirees find part-time jobs. The government also requires companies to employ their workers through to age 65 if they want to keep working, although at a lower salary.

In Singapore, a tripartite standard that encourages age-inclusive workplace practices related to those over 60 was launched in 2018.

Meanwhile, the European Pillar of Social Rights commits EU members to making it easier for older workers to actively participate and stay longer in the labour market.

Strategies for older workers: Do, meet, be

Flanagan believes those considering a career change should follow their intuition, downsizing to a part-time job or transitioning to retirement.

“We all need challenges in life and many of them are still to come as you get older, and we should look forward to them,” he says.

Self-confidence and identity are key issues for older workers, says career architect Edwin Trevor-Roberts, CEO of career management firm Trevor-Roberts.

“We help people who are thinking about stepping off the treadmill into the third age,” he says.

If you are planning to stay with the same company but downsize your role and hours, you’ll need to have a conversation early with your employer about transitioning to retirement. You’ll also need to experiment with different activities and tasks inside and outside the workplace, says Trevor-Roberts, to find new interests and “fits”.

Catriona Byrne, creative director of career transition providers RiseSmart Australia and New Zealand, advises: “Know the business well enough to put together a business case to support your request for flexibility.”

Mindset success coach Danijela Glogovac CPA suggests taking time to understand what you really want from the next phase of your career. “You may have had a demanding role and want to scale down. Or you may want to take that same amount of energy into the next phase of your career.”

Those who want to change their role, or rejoin the workforce, but aren’t sure in what capacity, need to try their hand at as many things as they can think of, paid or unpaid, suggests Trevor-Roberts. This may include mentoring, consulting, volunteering or part-time work.

Adventure sports and Third World travel can open up different perspectives as well as generate opportunities to meet different people, he says.

“One of the problems older workers have out of the workforce is that they don’t have the right network because it is entirely caught up in the workforce, and people relate to the role. They need to see and think about themselves differently, as do the other people they meet, with a curiosity about new ways ‘to be’.

“Doing new things and meeting new people can help transform their identity from being CFO or the ex-CFO to the person who draws on their finance background to turn around sporting associations.”

If you are looking for a role on a board, or as a consultant, be aware that boards are looking for diversity of skills and backgrounds, not just experience, says Trevor-Roberts, so these positions may be harder to find.

“Someone who has had a stellar career will need to be more adaptable and flexible – having wisdom is not enough.”

Glogovac adds that like any career step, it’s important to play to your strengths. 

She suggests trying the free survey at viacharacter.org. “It’s all about self-awareness,” she says.

CPA Australia Resource: Get involved in CPA Australia’s Third Age Network and take part in projects that matter to you. Find out more.

6 tips for older workers

Not ready to leave the workforce entirely? Looking for new opportunities is a process. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Be clear on what you want. Are you ready to scale down the demands of your job or invest the same amount of time and energy into a new role?
  2. Build your LinkedIn profile, making sure to include what you are looking for in your next opportunity, your strengths and major accomplishments, and a professional photo. Connect with peers and acquaintances and post items of value to your network to build your visibility. You may also like to join meet-up groups and industry associations, as well as other clubs or organisations a little out of your comfort zone.
  3. Make a list of companies you would like to work for and research them. Sign up for job alerts at the company’s website.
  4. Keep a running sheet of your achievements that you can highlight in interviews. Make sure you explain the role you played and the outcome. “Your resume isn’t a record of where you’ve been for 30 years. Instead write a capability statement that demonstrates the wealth of experience you bring to the particular organisation you’re pitching for,” says Catriona Byrne.
  5. Upskill if you think it’s appropriate. There are myriad training courses, online and off , free and fee required. Start by googling education opportunities and don’t forget to google the skills required by someone in your ideal job.
  6. First impressions matter. Looking, thinking and feeling your best will support a successful job search, says Byrne. “Don’t discount the psychological impact of a new outfit, good posture and good grooming. All these external elements will give you internal confidence as you approach a new role.”

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