Mature Age Unemployment – Trends, Myths and Barriers
Bob’s first job was a salesperson selling menswear in the retail industry. He worked after school, on Friday night and Saturday morning.  His hard work, commitment and dedication paid off as he was promoted through the ranks. His leadership, teamwork, communication and customer service skills were recognised and he eventually became a Store Manager, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the store, and the employees within.  
At aged 57, Bob suddenly found himself unemployed after 40 years of work. The consequences of his redundancy are difficult: struggling to pay his living expenses, dealing with health issues that have been exaggerated by stress and depression, and telling his family and friends that he is unemployed. His self-esteem and confidence are low. He has sent out over 200 job applications, but has received few responses from employers for interviews. Bob no longer sees himself working full time.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, states that 50 years ago, the majority of Australians who worked were men working full-time.  Most worked well into their 60’s, sometimes beyond, and if they were not working most were looking for work until that age. The picture now is very different.

Far more people work part-time, or in temporary or casual jobs.  Retirement ages vary much more, with a greater proportion of men not participating in the labour force once they are older than 55. Nowadays, 45% of working Australians are women, compared with just 30% fifty years ago. These are profound changes that have helped shape 21st Century Australia.

Research statistics in the 2010 Intergenerational Report by the Australian Government’s Attorney-General’s Department, regarding Australia’s ageing population are stark:  in 1970 there were five people of working age supporting each Australian over 65.  At current trends, this will fall to just 2.7 by 2050. 

A survey by Chandler Macleod, 2013 quotes Australian Bureau of Statistics figures where ‘grey workers’ are under-represented in the workforce and over-represented in the joblessness rate.  ABS figures show a generation gap in the average duration of unemployment, with 45-54 year olds unemployed for 52 weeks on average and 55+ year olds for 75 weeks – more than twice the average period for those under 45. Literature indicates that mature age workers looking for jobs are out of work twice as long as younger job-seekers. The research by Chandler Macleod found that older workers have a strong drive to work, as well as a growing financial imperative following the blow to their savings during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

The Chandler Macleod report states that when employers were asked to comment on the key issues related to hiring and managing older workers, 33% of responses included benefits older workers bring to their organisation, while 60% encompassed negative issues.  

Employers perceive older workers as more experienced and more reliable, yet less computer literate, more resistant to change, and more prone to health issues. Information by the National Training Authority lists Transport and Storage and Health and Community in the top four sectors for mature worker representation.

With the advantages of hiring older workers, there are also myths and work barriers preventing employment. These include:


Myth 1 – Older workers are less productive

A common stereotype is that of lagging older worker productivity. However, employers responding to the survey by Chandler Macleod, 2013 generally view older workers as being more productive than their younger counterparts.


Myth 2 – Older workers are less safe

Older workers are perceived to present greater safety risk at work.

While it has been shown that older workers suffer a higher incidence of stress and strain-related injuries, often requiring longer recovery time, Safe Work Australia reports that in 2009–10, workers aged under 25 years accounted 66.1 work-related injuries per 1,000 workers.


Myth 3 – Older workers struggle with technology

There is some truth to this myth.  The Australian School of Business suggests that older workers’ inability to come to grips with new technology is an issue for some employers, but this is not held universally. With more than one in four (28%) employers holding this stereotype, it is a significant issue likely to be impacting on older workers.

Older workers face both personal and structural barriers to finding employment which makes it more difficult to sustain work. These include:


Personal barriers

  • Discrimination in employment on the basis of age. This is one of the largest and most prevalent barriers that can lead to exclusion from jobs. Mature employees are treated less favourably in both the recruitment and retention of staff, impacting on their desire to attain and to work. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against people who are age 40 or older
  • Care-giving responsibilities for family members, those with a long-term illness or disability impacts on the ability to find and retain employment. This is especially the case – usually for mothers, who have disrupted their career due to child care and other caring responsibilities
  • Flexible work arrangements are those which vary from the traditional full time Monday to Friday, and provide employees with an opportunity to balance their work responsibilities and life commitments. Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (start and finish times), patterns of work (split shifts or job sharing), changes to the job design, and working from home. The ability to work part-time or flexible hours assists individuals to extend their working lives. An employer can only refuse a request on reasonable business grounds if it is too costly, no capacity or impractical to change the working arrangements of other employees, or a negative impact on customer service. A reduction in hours for mature age as they approach retirement would help current workers work more years
  • Mental health barriers include: depression, anxiety, and stress, and make it difficult for individuals to stay or return to work. Mental health barriers may be due to reasons such as: job loss, unemployment, or difficulties re-entering employment. Individuals struggling with mental health issues additionally struggle with lack of understanding and support from colleagues and management, bullying, harassment, discrimination, loss of self-esteem and confidence, inability to cope, and fear of relapse. To reduce the barriers and support individuals with mental health issues, it helps to acknowledge the issues, access counselling, and include work modifications to one’s job.
  • Physical illness, injury and disability prevents or limits individuals from working. This will impact on early retirement, and can create difficulties to find employment.


Structural barriers

  • Superannuation and worker’s compensation can impact on the timing of one’s retirement.
  • Tax and income support systems – the complex tax system acts as a disincentive for mature age people to work. Mature age individuals who seek to work may decline part-time employment opportunities if it would cause a reduction in Pension entitlements.
  • Workplace barriers and work design of jobs – the job design of some occupations affects their attitudes and behaviour and job satisfaction at work. It may act as barriers towards staying in the workforce, and can contribute to an early retirement.
  • Structural changes at industry level and workplaces include changing external events such as government legislation, competition between organisations, and internal events that effect the organisation such as restructuring and changing customer needs.


Overcoming barriers

Career planning is often viewed as most relevant for school leavers and university graduates. With the myths and barriers identified for mature age workers, career counselling is now considered just as important for this cohort.  It is helpful for understanding work options, expanding occupational choice, increasing employability, for re-skilling and extending working lives.

There is a common perception that older workers cannot be easily retrained – ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. This is not the case.  Mature workers have a wealth of work and life experience and skills to offer that should not be overlooked.

A survey by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2014 states that older Australians intend to work until they are at least 65, and 71 per cent of people aged 45 and over said they did not expect to retire until they reached 65 or over. If employers regard older workers as productive, motivated, safe and value their knowledge and experience, why aren’t firms hiring more mature age employees? The Chandler Macleod survey results suggest that the key reason is simpler than may be expected – older workers simply are not applying for the roles advertised.

Literature indicates half of all males discouraged from continuing to look for work cite being ‘too old’ as the main reason. Mature age people ‘self-select’ out of the labour market due to the discrimination and barriers that they face. We need to design strategies to engage mature age workers.

Retraining and up-skilling mature age people to find employment is an important strategy to help mature age people do their job better, get a promotion, find a job and find more hours.  Older workers need to take responsibility for their careers, keep their skills current, and actively pursue opportunities 

There is currently a mismatch of skills and experience of mature age job seekers with industry demands, and the availability of jobs. The changes in the economy and the impact of globalisation means that some people have skills that are less suited to the modern economy.  Skill development is an ongoing process, but some acquire it during job loss or ill health. Programs need to match the labour market requirements, the qualifications and education levels of the individual and be cost effective to encourage participation.

Mature-age workers can find employment through their network of people that they know.  For others, there may be an option of starting their own small business, or the temptation to retire early and leave the workforce to pursue leisure activities.

Research by the Attorney-General’s Department 2010, states that Government, at least at a Federal level, has taken a role in encouraging older workers to delay retirement by targeting both employees (through policy and superannuation changes) and employers (through a range of incentives). It seems that this approach appears to have had little impact.  

Under the Commonwealth Government Jobs Bonus scheme, which began in July 2012, employers can be paid $1,000 if they take on a worker aged 50 or older for at least three months. Most employers surveyed do not believe that $1,000 makes any meaningful difference in increasing the likelihood of hiring older workers. 

Mature age workers are experienced with a wealth of knowledge and skills to mentor younger workers who enter the industry or the workplace. Assisting mature age workers to remain in the labour force encourages their employment. However, difficulties arise when mature workers do not possess the skills and knowledge that are in demand in the present labour market, and they face age discrimination. This can discourage them from seeking employment. With an ageing population, and less people supporting workers over 65 years of age, strategies and incentives for older workers to remain in the workforce need to be considered.


What do you think about what I have discussed above? Share your tips and ideas below in ‘Comments.’

About Leah Shmerling

Leah Shmerling

Leah Shmerling is the Director and Principal Consultant of Crown Coaching and Training, and has extensive experience in career development, life coaching, education and training.

Leah is the author of two books in careers and business communication, a former freelance writer for The Age and Herald Sun, and publisher of two accredited online short courses, Mentoring and Development and Foundations in Career Development Practice.

Leah is a professional member of the Career Development Association Australia (CDAA), a Certified Retirement Coach and is Board Certified as a Career Management Fellow with the Institute of Career Certification

Leah Shmerling can be contacted here



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