Encouraging older employees to remain in the workforce has become almost a mantra. Which is all well and good – in theory – but regrettably, the reality often runs counter to the rhetoric.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, baby boomers and seniors now make up a whopping 30% of our population. When the treasurer announced last year that the Government intended raising the retirement age to sixty-seven by 2017, his decision quickly gained bipartisan support. For once, Tony Abbott didn’t demur. Seems our ageing work colleagues are destined to continue to make up a significant proportion of our workforce. But an extra two years is a long time in the life of someone experiencing a decline in their physical health.
Take what happened to my former colleague, Elizabeth.* In the end, she went without a fuss, which was surprising, as Elizabeth was no shrinking violet. While on prolonged sick leave, she simply resigned. She snuck into the office one weekend and cleared her desk. Gone was her African tribeswomen calendar, her collection of multicoloured pens and the yellow porcelain teapot she’d used to brew her peppermint tea.
Despite her grouchiness I half-hoped she’d be back. I missed her dry sense of humour and our conversations about books and movies. But of course it was her vast experience and the way she managed difficult clients with aplomb that we missed most of all. Eventually a loud young woman with a loud laugh, a penchant for Facebook and Diet Coke, but little interest in actually working, was hired and Elizabeth’s desk was given a makeover with pink fluffy stuff.
Over the last year Elizabeth had, uncharacteristically, started coming in late, and her sick leave increased with each passing week. She alluded to insomnia and cardiac problems but her withering looks rebuffed all my enquires. Her highly anticipated expensive hearing aid proved a disappointment and she continued to flounder in meetings. And then there were her basic mistakes; misplaced mobile phones and several minor bingles in work cars; it wasn’t like her at all.
Ever coy about her age, which is fair enough, Elizabeth is well past sixty. She’s told me she doesn’t have much superannuation. Although she’d “always worked,” she had no share portfolio, no investment property. Nor Winnebago waits in her driveway. It’s not as if she’s lived extravagantly but she doesn’t go without. She used to manage an overseas trip every few years. She sees most of the Art House releases and she generally gets to thumb her way through the Man Booker Prize short list. She enjoys eating out and some modest extras.
The term under-superannuated baby boomers is a now part of the financial planners’ lexicon. Anxiety is rife about how we can live comfortably post retirement. Money experts counsel it’s folly to rely on the old age pension and irresponsible to retire without having hundreds of thousands of dollars – monopoly money, it seems – salted away.
But isn’t there something wrong with our system when we can’t call it quits after participating in the workforce for over four decades? The prevailing wisdom seems to be if you’re a “senior” you must somehow be contributing to society. Surely we can’t all contribute ad infinitum? When is enough enough? Volunteering, laudable and all as it is, simply isn’t an option for everyone.
Despite the organisational rhetoric, managers and work places are often at a loss, even hamstrung to accommodate or manage people like Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s line manager – a well meaning bloke, almost half her age, did not have sufficient skills to manage the deteriorating situation. He confided to me one day that he just wished Elizabeth would resign. Of course there are privacy issues to be considered and due processes to be assiduously complied with. Sure there are anti harassment and bullying policies in place. But there seems to be little tangible support available to assist those in the twilight of their careers. Shouldn’t employers have some moral responsibility to do the right thing by their employees?
It’s about time the needs of our ageing work colleagues are discussed in a transparent and respectful manner. If we’re to be expected to work for longer and many people in similar circumstances to Elizabeth, really want to, then let’s have some honest discussion. The Elizabeths of our workforce need a more flexible response from their employers. And this flexibility should allow them adequate time off to better manage their health needs and to attend medical appointments or whatever requirements they face. Too many workplaces make it difficult for employees to go part-time and job sharing is still regarded as an inconvenient novelty.
There should be no shame or secrecy in engaging with ageing issues in the workplace. It’s something that awaits us all.