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Youth jobs incentive could push older Australians into unemployment and poverty

Opinion

With JobMaker about to begin paying employers up to $200 a week to hire workers under 30, the odds have again lengthened against older workers trying to keep their jobs or find one, argues Jane Mussared. Urgent strategies are needed so the older unemployed don’t spend long, unproductive years on JobSeeker.

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A premature end to their career and retiring into poverty – that’s the reality for thousands of older South Australians because of an increasingly ageist employment market.

Older people want and need to stay employed but, in a job market severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the odds are stacked against them.

The JobMaker hiring credit announced in the Federal Budget will make it even harder for older people to secure paid work.

COTA SA is concerned that employers may be inclined to hire staff based only on their age, to take advantage of the concession worth up to $200 per week for workers aged under 35.

Indeed, following the announcement, a sign was seen displayed prominently on Goodwood Road seeking a hard-working, full-time “young person” for a job.

This blatant ageism is exactly what the latest Federal Budget measures should have foreshadowed.

Even if the sign were to come down, it demonstrates that ageist filters are alive and well and being used by some employers.

The Federal Treasurer has assured us that the system won’t be rorted and points to the underused, overly stringent and complicated Restart initiative for mature workers. As a result, we continue to hear from older workers about the despair at trying to get back to work, and the age discrimination they experience in the process.

This week’s State Budget – touted as turbocharging the economy – provided a vital shot in the arm and a welcome vote of confidence in our local businesses.

However, the stimulus has so far failed to provide a jobs strategy that ensures disadvantaged older job seekers can get back into the workforce.

The job crisis is very real for South Australians of all ages. COTA SA is a strong supporter of both federal and state government strategies that address the job crisis, but one strategy that has so far been overlooked is tackling ageism. If they fail to meet this challenge, we risk fuelling new poverty and increasing hopelessness.

Older workers are disproportionately targeted for redundancy. They are also an increasing proportion of JobSeeker recipients.

The Parliamentary Budget Office said, before the COVID-19 pandemic, that women aged 60 and above made up the largest proportion of JobSeeker recipients. Recent research has suggested that older men will be similarly overly represented as a result of the coronavirus.

JobSeeker payments are meant to fill a short-term gap while job seekers return to the workforce. However, many people in their 50s and 60s are forced to rely on it as their sole income late in their careers for many months and years.

The median time on this support payment for unemployed people aged between 55 and 64 is 166 weeks – more than three years, and much longer than any other age group.

Almost one-third of Australians have reported some form of age-related discrimination at work or while looking for work in the past 12 months, starting as early as 45-years-old.

Only one-third of over 55s participate in the workforce, yet every day we hear that people want and need to work into their 60s and beyond both for financial reasons but also because of the opportunity to contribute and gain a sense of worth.

An increasing number of older workers can’t get work, or can’t get enough work, but are too young to qualify for an age pension.

The nature of work is changing with COVID-19 further upending employment security.

The rise of the “gig economy” and the increased use of casual and short-term contracts has created significant anxiety for people in their 50s and 60s, particularly women, who are now left to contemplate long stints of underemployment and unemployment. This comes just at the time they’d planned to be setting aside superannuation or paying a mortgage, after years of busy parenting and other caring responsibilities.

These figures paint a very clear picture. Older workers are rapidly becoming more and more marginalised from the workforce despite a desire and a need to keep working.

Within the framework of new spending announced in the State Budget, there is an important opportunity for innovative, targeted and effective job strategies that will trade bleak futures for pathways back to work for older jobseekers.

Jane Mussared is chief executive of COTA SA – the peak body promoting the rights, needs and interests of older South Australians.

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