We’re living longer than ever before. In fact, the number of Australians over the age of 85 has more than doubled in the past 20 years. But could our long lives have real implications for the future of work?
We explore what Australia’s growing longevity could mean for the future of work.
How much longer are we living?
When Australia first introduced a national age pension in 1908, it paid a living allowance to many (but not all) people after they’d reached the age of 65 and stopped working.* It was, of course, means-tested, but to be eligible, you also had to meet race requirements and be ‘of good character’.
At the time the pension was introduced, the life expectancy for Australian women was short of 56, and for men, it was less than 51. In other words, most people didn’t even come close to living to pension age.
Fast forward to today, and although the pension age has been lifted to 67, most of us make it well beyond this. Today in Australia, life expectancy is over 81 for men and over 85 for women – close to 30 years longer than when retirement age became enshrined in Australian law.
The number of people who make it way beyond this is growing faster still. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of Australians over 85 grew by 110%. And this is going to become more extreme very quickly: a baby girl born today has a 40% chance of reaching 100.
Let that sink in for a minute…
Should we be working longer just because we’re living longer?
As life expectancy increases dramatically, many argue we should be working longer too.
One main reason for this is economic: how can we expect to fund longer retirements without making the working-age population pay? Many also point to the many benefits that working brings when it comes to both mental and physical health. The mental stimulation, social engagement and sense of purpose that come from paid and meaningful employment have all been proven to contribute to both happiness and healthiness and that, in turn, contribute to, well, an even longer life still.
On the flip side, those who argue we shouldn’t be working longer often tend to say that, in the coming years, increased automation and the rise of AI will mean less human labour will be required to produce the same output.
There’s also a reasonable argument that a long retirement and fewer working hours could mean people begin to enjoy a better quality of life.
Let’s assume, for the moment, we may be working longer…
Despite the pension age being 67 (and the preservation age for super being 60), we’re still retiring at an average of around 55 for women and 59 for men. If we assume a symmetrical distribution for that average, that means for every man who retires at 65, there’s one who retires at 53. And for every woman who retires at 65, there’s one who retires at 45.
But, if this changes, and we need to accommodate a growing number of older workers, what kind of changes are we likely to have to make?
The future is flexible: gig, remote and part-time work
As more people begin to work past traditional retirement age, we’re likely to see non-traditional work models surge.
For instance, flexible working may have already taken off during the pandemic, but if we’re to accommodate an ageing workforce, we’ll probably have to become more flexible still.
More and more workers are likely to want to carry out at least some of their work remotely. Others will want to work reduced hours, dropping from the traditional five-day week to four or three.
We’re also likely to see the gig economy become important for older workers, with project-based work and short-term engagements – particularly in the most skilled occupations – becoming the norm.
As this happens, we could well see a real rise in productivity as we move more towards project or results-based rather than time-based work. The increased autonomy associated with flexible working could also mean people stay happier and therefore more productive until much later in life.
Workplace redesign: making space for every age
Not all work will be carried out from home, however. And there are genuine advantages to having people in the office – at least some of the time.
However, a multigenerational workforce will mean a multigenerational workplace. And achieving this won’t just be limited to installing better lighting and ergonomic chairs.
Instead, expect flex spaces to become the norm. Having the freedom to switch between various work settings has been proven to reduce physical and mental fatigue. This is especially beneficial for older workers who may find the traditional nine-to-five desk setup draining. Quiet rooms can serve as temporary relief spaces for those who might need a break from the standard office hustle.
Older employees are also more likely to have specific health requirements. This could lead to a new emphasis on creating a healthy workplace, with features such as standing desks and high-quality air filters becoming more common. Larger organisations could well begin to offer in-office health services. (Some already do.)
Lifelong learning to become the new norm
We’re already past the days of learning a trade or profession and sticking with it for life. But if the workforce gets older, ongoing education is likely to take on even greater importance. In fact, older workers are likely to have to upskill and reskill and learn new skills continually as technology changes.
Much of this is likely to take place online, and we could see a real uplift in the digital workplace educational sector. Ongoing education could take on greater importance in the employment contract, potentially becoming a condition of work for many of us across the board.
On the flip side, having older workers in the workplace will also mean more potential mentors and role models in the workplace. So younger workers are likely to be learning just as much too.
Automation and AI
Technology such as automation and AI are also likely to play a vital role in helping us work longer and more productively. In physical sectors, such as manufacturing, it could take some of the strain, allowing us to stay employed for longer. It could also help make the working day more efficient, suggesting ways to cut down on unnecessary movement (for instance, in the context of a warehouse or delivery vehicle), thereby helping reduce fatigue.
In a more white-collar setting, AI and automation can potentially reduce the need for repetitive work, allowing older workers to focus their efforts on where they bring the most value – to the high-value brain work.
Finally, an older workplace is also likely to mean a new emphasis on anti-agism policies, both at a legislative and organisational level.
This may include age-sensitivity training sessions aimed at combatting age-related stereotypes to encourage a more inclusive environment. We’re also likely to see greater emphasis on work/life balance – something crucial for older workers. This could mean fewer working days or curtailed hours for everyone, not just older workers.
The fact we’re living longer is likely to mean many of us will choose to work longer too. And that’s likely to shake up the workplace in some interesting ways.
If you’d like to know more about the impact this is likely to have on your workplace, get in touch.
* In 1910, the pension age for women was reduced to 60 on the grounds that, despite living longer than men, they tended to be “incapacitated for regular work at an earlier age”.