Workforce | Skills

Labour markets needs flexibility for older workers

Older workers will need the right to request workforce flexibility if Australia is to meet its future labour market needs, the latest work and life survey from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Work and Life shows.

Older workers will need the right to request workforce flexibility if Australia is to meet its future labour market needs, the latest work and life survey from the University of Adelaide's Centre for Work and Life shows.

To enable older workers to care for their ageing parents and their children while continuing in the workforce, Australia will need to allow them the right to request flexible work hours, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing and Minister for Social Inclusion, Mark Butler has told a CEDA audience in Adelaide.

Launching the fifth Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI), Mr Butler said while the latest survey continued to show the pressures on working mothers, it also highlighted the work-life balance issues for older workers for the first time.

Mr Butler said the survey showed that work-life balance issues for the "sandwich generation" of mostly women caring for ageing parents as well as dependent children was "approaching Australian policy makers like a tsunami".

While in 2010 the Australian Government introduced a right to request flexibility for parents of pre-school aged children and children under 18 with a disability, older workers had no such right despite the push to keep them in the workforce longer, he said.

Extending the right to request flexibility for this group would be critical to ensuring that the Australian workforce grew sufficiently to overcome the deficit caused by a large cohort reaching retirement age, he said.

It would also be vital to ensure enough informal (family) care for the growing population of ageing people, he said.

"This issue of work and life balance has been a really profound economic and social challenge for some time," he said.

It's almost a decade since John Howard proclaimed the issue of work and life to be a barbecue stopper - and I think we would all agree he was right.

"It is utterly critical for our economic interest, let alone for our older workers themselves, that we get much better workforce participation rates from them."

This would require greater recognition of older workers' need to slow down a bit and also to accommodate their caring responsibilities, he said.

The forum heard the AWALI study of around 3000 workers had identified consistent messages since its inception in 2007:

  • Working women - particularly partnered or single mothers - experience the worst work-life balance of all.
  • Nearly 70 per cent of full time working women report "often or almost always feeling rushed and pressed for time," up from 63.6 per cent in 2008.
  • More than 40 per cent of full time working women would like to work part time - even if this meant reducing their income.
  • Nearly 30 per cent of men work more than 48 hours a week and most - particularly fathers - would prefer to work at least half a day less than they do.
  • Managers and professionals are worse off than other working groups and those working in the mining and service sectors are worse off in terms of work-life balance.

The forum heard that while some parents had benefited from the new right to request flexibility, many were unaware of the rule and many were not convinced their employers would allow it. In addition, men were more likely to have their request for flexibility denied.

Professor Pocock from the University of South Australia's Centre for Work and Life said the 2012 survey showed an alarming culture of work intensity in Australia with nearly 40 per cent of workers reporting that they are working at very high speed for three quarters of their working time or more and 40.6 per cent reporting that they work to tight deadlines three quarters of the time or more. She said the proportion of working women dissatisfied with their work-life balance had almost doubled in five years.

"People are working so hard they are spinning; there is an unmeasured cost in lower productivity and poor decision-making. We need a more accurate assessment of the price of the way we are doing things now," Professor Pocock said.

Despite the perception that self-employed people or casuals had more control over their working life, the survey showed no work-life balance benefit for the self-employed and that casual workers were slightly worse off, Professor Pocock said.

The AWALI survey found that those who take work home have worse work-life outcomes compared to those who do not work at home - regardless of their motivation for working at home. It also showed that workers are donating on average 17 days a year of unpaid labour to their workplace.

Helping Hand Aged Care, CEO, Ian Hardy said providing flexibility for workers was critical to the labour-intensive aged care sector which was facing a labour force squeeze, particularly in the mid-north region over the next 20 years.

"We believe staff with better work-life balance will be better carers...A culture of flexibility is important to foster good client relationships and also recruitment and retention," Mr Hardy said.

Adelaide Thinker-In-Residence, Dr Alexandre Kalache said Australian workplaces were trapped in a 19th century model of work which was based on shorter life expectancy. Australians need to re-invent their working lives to deal with workforce shortages and to fund longer lives.

"We will need to do more sabbaticals, more learning...more leisure if we are to extend our working life," Dr Kalache said.

Download a pdf copy of the 2012 AWALI study