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New report highlights challenges for mature workers in Australia

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A new report released today by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) has found that many mature workers across Australia feel excluded in today’s workforce and have limited development opportunities and flexible working arrangements, compared to the younger population.

The researchers, based at Curtin University and the University of Sydney, conducted a national benchmarking survey of mature workers to understand how organisations might better manage and harness the benefits of an ageing workforce. The report shows that many mature workers currently do not feel included in the workplace with, for example, age-biased opportunities for skill development, a limited availability of flexible work that fully caters for workers’ individual needs and preferences, and a somewhat underwhelming degree of knowledge transfer amongst co-workers of different ages.

CEPAR Chief Investigator Professor Sharon Parker, from Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute, said the new research aimed to identify and develop successful work policies and practices that supported the attraction, retention and engagement of mature workers.

“With age diversity projected to continue to increase in Australian organisations, creating an environment in which all employees feel valued and respected regardless of their age will become increasingly important. This will in turn benefit not only organisations as a whole, but also teams and individual employees,” Professor Parker said.

The researchers asked over 2,000 employees from more than 1,500 Australian organisations about inclusive work environments; individual strategies to adapt to physical, emotional and cognitive changes over the life span; and supportive workplace practices, such as age diversity and flexible work arrangements.

The researchers found that workers of 55 to 64 years of age, as well as working men older than 65, especially perceive their organisations’ policies as less age inclusive than younger workers.

According to the report, failure to create an inclusive work environment is likely to result in mature workers leaving their organisation early, and less likely to be engaged in their work. When employers provide motivating opportunities, such as fair access to promotions and training, both mature workers and their younger counterparts benefit.

Professor Parker highlights the importance of work design, adding that HR and work practices needed to be adapted to ensure fair access to training and development opportunities.

“Retraining mature workers will be important to enable them to adapt to the changing work demands of an increasingly digital environment. Also important is ensuring that mature workers’ jobs are redesigned to accommodate changes in their needs and preferences, such as reducing physical demands in manual jobs, or providing more opportunities for mentoring,” Professor Parker said. The research challenges some common age stereotypes. More than 90 per cent of mature employees aged over 65 years surveyed reported they actively try to develop their capabilities.

Professor Parker said that given the misconception that older workers are less adaptive than younger individuals, the report explored the adaptability component of individual performance in more detail.

“Employees of all ages surveyed said they had reasonable ability to cope with changes to their work tasks. Interestingly, the results indicate that lower levels of adaptivity tended to be reported more by younger workers,” Professor Parker said.

“These results go against the typical ageing stereotypes and indicate that older workers don’t struggle more than young workers to adapt to changes and learn new ways of completing their core work tasks.”

Co-author Marian Baird, CEPAR Chief Investigator and Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney Business School, said the survey also asked employees about their access to flexible working arrangements.

“Significant caring responsibilities, such as the need to care for elderly parents or grandparenting responsibilities, have been identified as a key driver for mature employees to consider early retirement,” said Professor Baird.

“Supporting employees who are balancing care responsibilities is an important issue for organisational growth with an ageing workforce. As our working population ages and organisations strive to retain mature workers, greater flexibility in working arrangements will become increasingly important to support mature workers.”

The researchers asked employees to report on the extent to which they feel that their employer supports the use of flexible working options as well as their previous access to flexible arrangements. The survey responses indicate a discrepancy between the support that employees feel their organisation has for flexible work and actual reports of access to flexible arrangements.

Professor Baird added that elder care and grandparenting leave options are inclusion strategies that organisations should utilise to enable mature workers to participate in the workforce longer.

“As the mature workforce continues to grow, these options are likely to become a higher priority for mature job seekers and therefore provide a competitive advantage for organisations aiming to attract high performing employees,” Professor Baird said.

Professor Sharon Parker said that the report offered hope, adding that women who have remained working beyond the age of 65 had largely positive experiences, with higher reports of inclusive, individualised and integrative work practices.

“The actions taken by the organisations employing these women have created positive and age-supportive organisational and managerial contexts. These findings show that it is indeed possible to create positive work and workplaces for mature workers, and we hope to see such situations emerge more widely,” Professor Parker said.

“Moving ahead, we hope this report will stimulate policymakers, CEOs, HR professionals, and other relevant stakeholders to better value the mature workforce, and to take active steps to design and implement age-friendly policies and practices.

“More training and development of diversity professionals, line managers, and others involved in enacting work policies is needed to move in this direction, as is the provision of evidence-based guidance to help organisations to implement and embed these policies.”

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