6 workplace trends older people should know

More Australians want to work for longer, and not just because the Age Pension eligibility age has increased to 67.

If you’ve blown out more than 50 birthday candles, the chances are your relationship to work and employment is evolving and shifting. Allison Tait has interviewed the experts to find out what will maximise your employability so you can work for profit, pleasure or whatever else tickles your fancy.

By Allison Tait

More of us are working for longer, and not just because we need the money.

More people than ever find meaning, purpose and valuable social connections from their work and are fit and healthy enough to enjoy turning up to the workplace.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) Older Australians, Employment and Work Report confirms it  – “We’re staying in the workforce longer, just as much because we want to, as because we have to,” says Mark McCrindle, social researcher at McCrindle.

Only one in 5 workers over the age of 45 say they want to retire before the age of 65 - many want to keep working.

 “The number of over 65s in work has doubled for men in the last 20 years, and quadrupled for women. Part of the reason is that we’re moving to a ‘knowledge economy’ and older workers can work longer in a Knowledge economy.”

Men over the age of 65 are working mostly as professionals and managers, while women are concentrated in professionals and clerical work. People working as trades workers, manufacturers and warehousing have dropped.

Ageism in the workplace

Most of us value the meaning (and money) that working gives us, but ageism can still be a brutal blow for older people who find themselves searching for a new job.

The reality is that older workers still struggle to get job interviews and are likely to be unemployed for twice as long as younger people, according to ABC News.

Official figures revealed more than 23,000 workers were made redundant in 2023 and Australian industries are constantly being reshaped by technology

This article set out to discover what’s in store for older Australian workers in 2024, the skills you need to stay employed, and the trends shaping the future of work.

Workforce trend #1: More older people will work, probably flexibly

Bernard Salt, executive director and founder of The Demographics Group, has deemed the years after the age of 55 as ‘The Lifestyle Years’

You’ve probably read about flexible work practices lately – job sharing, parental leave, remote working – but not really considered how they might apply to you. After all, they’re often framed as being for working parents looking for ways to manage young families.

But flexibilility at work is important for older workers as well, with many keen to juggle meaningful work with carer responsibilities, travel and other new interests that are important, such as volunteering or even being more active and healthy.

Salt's report Australians At Work: Over 55s outlines the ways that Australians are redefining retirement, including that 7 out of 10 of us see ongoing work as part of the package.

Many older people want to transition from fulltime work to part-time, casual or flexible work after 55.

“This is when people start to look for flexibility around their work,” he says. “They’re far too young to retire, still in demand in the workplace, but life is short and they want to harvest some of the investment they’ve put in over the years and enjoy life.”

Workforce trend #2: A tight labour market means opportunities for older workers

“We expect the Australian labour market to remain tight in 2024, marked by ongoing high demand from employers,” Callum Pickering, Senior Economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab wrote in Indeed’s 2024 AU Jobs & Hiring Trends Report.

McCrindle and Salt agree that something called the ‘Knowledge’ sector offers the biggest opportunities for older workers. 

Knowledge work is often professional, office-centric work - think of accounting, engineering, consultancy, pharmacy or even architecture - that doesn't demand lots of manual labour.

Salt says people over the age of 50 with 30 years’ experience and contacts from work will be highly valued. “Knowledge workers have even more value to offer their employers later in their career.”

“Professional and Knowledge areas are the most ‘older-worker friendly’ now and more so in the future,” agrees McCrindle. “A lot of older workers now have their own business, are contracting, or are employed in their own way – it’s changed the workforce dynamics.”

Pickering’s report says Australia’s newest job boom has been powered “to a large degree” by one industry: healthcare and social assistance. 

“The industry accounts for one-third of employment gains since 2020, with employment increasing by around 443,000 people since then,” writes Pickering. “The demand for healthcare and social assistance workers is underpinned by Australia’s ageing population, which will continue to drive strong job creation for the foreseeable future.”

Other strong job growth sectors include professional services and construction.

You can also read Citro’s story about the sectors where older Australian workers are thriving.

Workforce trend #3: We see value in work, beyond the pay cheque

Part of the shift in attitude is about understanding the value of work beyond financial gain.

“People are feeling younger for longer, (with work) offering engagement, structure, self worth – a place where they can have an impact and leave a legacy," says McCrindle,

The ‘Employing and Retaining Older Workers’ report confirms that we’ll stay in the workforce longer where flexibility is an option, when job satisfaction is high, and where training and development opportunities are offered by employers.

In other words, if we feel valued at work, we’ll continue to show up. 

“Many seniors are willing and able to bring sound experience to a position if given the opportunity,” says Amanda McKean, CEO of Seeking Seniors, a website dedicated to employment and job opportunities for workers aged over 45. “We are living longer, we are working longer and we need and want to work longer.”

Workforce trend #4: The right skills matter (and probably aren't what you think)

When we think of skills for the modern workforce, our thoughts tend to jump straight to technology, and there’s no doubt that maintaining relevant skills in this area remains essential for older workers. 

“Adapting to technology is key,” says Mark McCrindle. “It’s about micro-skilling and upskilling, keeping up with skills in technology and adapting to change.”

The 2023 Skills Priority List from Jobs and Skills Australia shows there are national shortages in 36% of occupations, from Accommodation and Hospitality Managers to Cabinet Makers to Web Developers, so leaning in to lifelong learning can pay dividends. (See the full Skills Prioity List here.)

If you’re looking for advice or pathways to a new career, visit the Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers Program from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. 

But be quick – the program, which aims to assist up to 10,000 eligible older Australians a year, ends on 1 July 2024.

McCrindle and Salt agree that the most important skills for older workers are social.

“My long experience of the workforce is that the people who are the most successful, integrated and sought after … are the people who have high energy, are fizzing with ideas, are warm and open and inclusive, and easy to talk to,” says Salt.

“These are social skills – and good social skills go a long way towards compensating for terrible other skills. But if you’ve got good technical skills – the latest in the technology that’s relevant to your field – and you have the right attitude, then I think that’s what you need.”

Attitude is an often overlooked but essential part of the equation.

“The right attitude for an older person can be upbeat, optimistic, positive, easy to talk to, and – this is really, really important – open,” says Salt. “What this means is that if you’re 64, you’re not going to be silently resentful about taking instruction from a 44-year-old."

Instead, says Salt, make it clear that you’re happy to be forming new relationships, making an impact, contributing to the business. “Communicating that is important and is part of the ‘leaning in’ process you really need to focus on.”

Workforce trend #5: The attitude shift goes both ways

Identifying work opportunities in your 50s can be challenging and we’ve all heard anecdotal stories about jobseekers age-proofing their resumes to help their chances of an interview.

Salt believes there's a shift around the perception of older workers.

“As the population ages, as people get used to having more workers in their 50s and 60s, and even beyond the age of 65, I think [that situation becomes] normalised and people will become far more open to employing older workers,” he says.

Salt acknowledges that, in the past, Australia has been youth-dominated, but notes a shift in the ‘centre of gravity’ to a population aged in its 40s, 50s ,60s and 70s.

McCrindle agrees. “Ageism is about societal perception of what the life stages look like,” he says. “People may think that people get to 60 and want to wind down, but many are winding up. The other changing perception is that of workplace hierarchy – we often think an older worker is top of the tree, based on age, but we’re seeing older workers who don’t want to be at the top. They want to participate, make a contribution and work part-time."

“Retirement is pushing back,” says Bernard Salt, executive director and founder of The Demographics Group. “With [Australia’s] very low unemployment rate and the skills shortage, employers are looking for additional labour and labour pools, and wanting to attract workers back into the workforce. So I see opportunities for people over the age of 50 right across the spectrum.” 

For now, though, McCrindle acknowledges that there’s a way to go, with data pointing to unemployment rates for over 65s continuing to increase. “It’s partly workforce participation,” he says. “But there are still over 65s who want to do more and can’t.”

Workforce trend #6: We’ve realised it’s never too late to change careers

When 57-year-old dance teacher Cheryl Smith joined the Victorian Police as a probationary constable earlier this year, it made headlines around Australia

But, according to the Australians At Work: Over 55s report, nearly a quarter (24%) of over 55s have had a career change in the past 5 years – a significant number at a time when many of us are just looking to ensure stability. 

“Career changes relate to shift in purpose,” says Salt. “People remain in a job for years that they may not be entirely happy with because of their sense of obligation, but there is a sense of release in the mid- to late-50s. Perhaps the kids have left home or they receive an inheritance or something like the pandemic shakes you up. They’ll use the phrase ‘it’s my time now’.”

As Cheryl Smith told the Today show: “I always wanted to be a police officer but I had a few world titles to get out of the way. I think I just really wanted to do something a bit more meaningful with my time, my energy, and do something for the community.”

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