On ageing and working

Australia’s Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was recently reported to have warned of an “economic time bomb” caused by the increasing proportion of the aged amongst Australia’s population. Frydenberg wants older people to re-train so as to keep their skills relevant for longer, though the reports I’ve read don’t make it clear as to how he intends to achieve this. In an article for The Conversation, Andreas Cebullo argues that such talk is ignoring what would really keep older people in work: more autonomy, less time pressure, better pay and other things that make work more comfortable and appealing. Commenters on the article added numerous other issues missing from the upskilling mantra, including whether or not there is actually a lack of workers at all given that 5% of the labour force is currently unemployed and an even greater proportion underemployed.

I take an interest in claims surrounding the ageing of the population both because I’m ageing myself and because it was an article on ageing workers that first got me thinking about the topics behind this blog. That article took up warnings like Frydenberg’s that older people would need to stay in work longer but—rather confusingly to my mind—worried that the jobs would instead be taken by machines. Whether or not a machine ultimately takes my job, I’m getting to the age at which I’ve heard of people becoming unemployable due to the sorts of complaints that the commenters on Cebullo’s article make.

Though I’m still employed and still have twenty years or so before I reach the standard retirement age, Cebullo’s description of ageing workers becoming increasingly tired rang true for me, as did his suggestion that increasing autonomy and so on might alleviate this. I’ve had the good fortune to work in fields in which I do have a lot of autonomy, yet I have felt worn down by the nine-to-five grind when working full-time. How much harder might it be if I worked in retail or manual labour, say, in which such luxuries might not be so readily available?

Of course improving working conditions in the way that Cebullo suggests is easier said than done; perhaps doubly so (as Cebullo observes) from the point of view of government since it is employers who have direct responsibility for negotiating working conditions. Even with the best will in the world, autonomy is limited by organisational needs, rushes of work might create time pressures, and so on. But if A Little Research or something like it is a success, I hope I can make my own little contribution to improving working conditions for both myself and any employees I might have in the future—and maybe dropping out of the workforce entirely will take a little longer because of it.

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