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Save Australia - keep working

By Sherrill Nixon, Sydney Morning Herald

 August 28, 2003

Breaking the mould . . . age has been no barrier to learning new skills for John O'Shea, who swapped a night job at Australia Post for a one behind the wheel. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Australia's baby boomers have been asked to ditch ideas of an early retirement in the interests of the country's future.

The Federal Minister for Ageing, Kevin Andrews, yesterday called for a huge change in attitude to tackle the workforce problems arising from Australia's ageing population.

"The change required of employees is to abandon expectations of early retirement and ensure they update their skills so they remain employable," Mr Andrews told the Ageless Workforce Symposium in Sydney.

"From time to time, a particular generation of Australians is called upon to rebuild our society in order to secure its ongoing prosperity. That time is now."

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said he would ask the business leaders in his Community Business Partnership to develop policies to encourage mature-age people to stay in the workforce. The rallying call has been driven by demographic projections that show the number of Australians aged over 65 will more than double over the next 50 years.

The annual number of new entrants to the workforce will fall from 170,000 to 12,500 in 20 years - and by 2025 there will be only three people in work for every person over 65, compared with the current ratio of six-to-one.

The scenario is compounded by the relatively newfound desire for early retirement and the retrenchment drives that have hit many older workers.

Australia has one of the lowest workforce participation rates for older people in the developed world, with 45 per cent of men aged 60-64 in work now compared with 75 per cent in 1970.

The symposium heard from companies at the forefront of efforts to attract and retain older workers, including Westpac, Australia Post and McDonald's.

Westpac's general manager of stakeholder communications, Noel Purcell, said older workers were a stable workforce because they were less likely to leave their employers to find other jobs.

They were also an asset in dealing with older customers, who sometimes felt younger staff were not experienced enough, he said. Westpac is recruiting 900 mature-aged workers.

At Australia Post, a survey of its 35,000 staff found the average age of the biggest proportion of its workers was the low-40s, compared with 31 in 1990.

Australia Post's group manager of change and development, Pat McCarthy, told the forum that 42 per cent of staff recently surveyed had been in the same job for more than six years, while 14 per cent had been in the same job for 15 years.

The survey also found that 70 per cent of workers felt their career had plateaued or was in decline. Australia Post had an entrenched culture of early retirement, with a sharp fall in employment once people hit 55.

Mr McCarthy said his firm wanted to smash the stereotypes of limited career prospects for the over-45s and to encourage its workers to develop new skills.

A possible role model for this is John O'Shea, 47. He has worked for Australia Post since 1975, when he started as a postman in Matraville and Mascot. After 16 years of postal routes, Mr O'Shea became a night-sorting manager - a position he held for 11 years until he left for health reasons.

Two years ago he became a driver for the firm, undergoing training in occupational health and safety for his new role.

However, Mr O'Shea still wanted to retire at 60, "if I'm healthy enough".

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