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Fears older Australians on Centrelink benefits may never work again

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UPDATED: The growing number of older Australians being forced onto income support has prompted calls for the Federal Government to step in, amid fears many may never find sustainable work again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

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In mid-May, there were 354,000 Australians aged 50 years and above registered for Centrelink’s Jobactive program, according to the Council on the Ageing SA.

The figure was a major leap on the 200,551 registered only weeks earlier on March 31, and double the 176,321 registered by the Department of Social Services in December last year.

InDaily asked the Department of Education, Skills and Employment for updated data, but did not receive any beyond March.

COTA Australia CE Ian Yates told InDaily he expected the grim numbers to further increase if the Federal Government axed its JobKeeper payment in September as scheduled, forcing more people onto JobSeeker unemployment benefits.

Yates said without changes to JobSeeker, more mature-aged Australians were likely to become long-term unemployed as they were locked out of the job market indefinitely.

He said while young people and women had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic – as they were more likely to be employed in occupations and industries most impacted by the response to Covid-19 – older Australians risked never working again.

“Mature age people are a very significant portion of the total unemployed – about a third – and they are more likely to be long-term unemployed,” Yates said.

“And one of the implications of the Covid-19 situation is that those people are likely to find it even harder to get back into the workforce.

“In past recessions and downturns where there have been significant numbers of people laid off, many of those people never worked again – now that is something we need to be alert to.”

Wendy Morgan has been trying to find stable, permanent work for the past eight years.

But, like hundreds of thousands of other mature-aged Australians, the South Australian woman remains stuck in a cycle of casual work and is dependent on social security payments to survive from week to week.

At 59 years old, Morgan doesn’t qualify for the Age Pension, which is designed for low income earners 66 years and older but is in the process of being increased in six month increments every two years until it reaches 67 years on July 1, 2023.

For Morgan, that’s another eight years away.

Since 2012, she has been reliant on JobSeeker – previously called Newstart – which is designed for unemployed Australians between 22 years and Age Pension age.

In order to receive the JobSeeker payment, Morgan is obliged to participate in the Federal government’s Jobactive program and participate in mutual obligations, which have temporarily been reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic and are being reintroduced in stages.

Prior to the pandemic, Morgan was forced to apply for jobs on a weekly basis, regardless of their suitability to her skill set or stage of life, attend training courses and gain as much work as she could.

“Recently I’ve been doing a lot of private cleaning and tutoring. The tutoring is much better because the cleaning work is physically demanding and … I’m not getting any younger, so it’s difficult for me to take that kind of work,” Morgan said.

“I really, really enjoy the teaching, even though I’m not a qualified teacher so I can’t get a job in a school. I love private tutoring but unfortunately I can’t get enough work to get off the Newstart payment.”

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS)  says the number of job vacancies available since the pandemic struck has dropped from one for every eight people on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance payments, to one for every 13.

While a report estimating the impact of the coronavirus shutdown on employment by the Grattan Institute suggested the “deliberately engineered” nature of the recession may help the nation bounce back faster than previous economic downturns, Yates said the longer people remained out of the workforce, the more difficult it became for them to gain meaningful employment.

He said many long-term unemployed begin to lose confidence in their own ability and capacity.

“It can increase and create extra anxiety and stress for those people and that becomes self-fulfilling a bit,” he said.

“If I’m told for long enough that I can’t get a job because of my age, I may come to believe it.”

Yates said that in order for older Australians to gain employment, Jobactive needed a “specific stream” for mature-aged people.

A Department of Education, Skills and Employment spokesperson told InDaily that the government had developed an initiative known as the Career Transition Assistance Program to “help mature-age job seekers help mature-age job seekers aged 45 years and over to build their confidence and identify transferrable skills to become more competitive in their local labour market”.

“The program provides practical assistance to develop technology and digital skills to build confidence in using different types of technology, such as smartphones, tablets, apps, social media and desktop computers, as well as applying for jobs online,” the spokesperson said.

But Yates said concerns with the Jobactive program had little to do with technological job-readiness and more to do with ageism, discrimination and job suitability.

“Our experience is that some of the Jobactive agencies and their staff are as ageist as the population,” Yates said.

“That is a significant problem because people are wanting and needing to work and, ironically, more people than ever are working into their late 60s and early to mid-70s.

“There is a very clear amount of discrimination and ageism in parts of our workforce. Not everyone – there are exemplary providers, and of course many small businesses who are dependent on having mature age workers, including their owners.”

A Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and related payments earlier this year recommended a review into early access to superannuation due to financial hardship on income recipients over 55 years, the impact of means testing and the liquid asset waiting period on the retirement savings of unemployed people applying for JobSeeker.

ACOSS senior policy advisor Charmaine Cross told InDaily the advocacy group was calling for the government to scrap the liquid assets waiting period.

“It actually serves no purpose other than to deny people income support when they are in financial need,” she said.

“The fact of the matter is that someone who does have any cash in the bank that will still be treated as an asset under the regular means test for the JobSeeker payment.

“There is really no point to prevent people from accessing income support because of very modest cash savings they may have, and that’s why the government must put in place appropriate support and support sufficient services to prevent that from happening for older people who find themselves unemployed.

“We need to ensure payments themselves are sufficient to prevent poverty. The coronavirus supplement has had an extraordinary effect for so many without paid work in terms of them being able to afford the basics like fresh fruit and vegetables and keeping a roof over their heads.

“So the critical thing, in the short term is for the government to never go back to $40 a day, the old Newstart rate, and to keep the coronavirus supplement … at least until we have a social security system that prevents poverty.

“The second thing is we need to ensure our social services system is doing its job and providing people, particularly older people with the support they need to find paid work.”

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