Skip to main content


Ahead of the Game: Recognising the Opportunities of our Ageing Population

Discrimination Age Discrimination


Today I would like to talk about the opportunities of our ageing population. I think it is fair to say that ageing tends to have a relatively low profile in conversations about diversity and opportunity. At times, compared with other areas of diversity (e.g. gender), it may drop off the radar completely. However, age inclusion is critical to the future and sustainability of our economy and society.

By 2055, the number of Australians over the age of 65 is expected to more than double [1].  When the students at this university will be in their 50s. With continual improvements to health, nutrition and care, the average life expectancy of older Australians continues to rise. Baby boomers are now living on average an extra 25 years longer than their parents and grandparents [2].  These additional years of life, will have an enormous impact on all sectors of society and our national economy.

With these demographic changes upon us, it is important that we are informed and equipped to meet not only the challenges of population ageing but also to capitalise on the enormous potential of this ageing cohort. In this lecture I would like to explore with you the economic potential of an ageing population and opportunities for leadership and innovation.

Economic Potential of Older People

Much has been said about the fiscal impacts of an ageing population and the pressures it will place on our economy, public health, welfare systems and younger generations. In 2015, there were 4.7 people of working age supporting every older person over 65. In 40 years’ time, the number of Australians over 65 will have more than doubled. This means that if the working age population remains relatively stable, in 40 years’ time, there will only be around 2.7 people of working age supporting every person over 65 [3].

The good news is that Australians aged 45 years and over are intending to work longer than ever before. The latest data from the ABS Retirement Intentions 2014 survey show that 71% of persons intended to retire at the age of 65 years or over. This is up from 48% compared with ten years before. More people are also intending to retire at older ages, 70 or over [4].

Compared to previous generations, older boomers are also likely to live many more years free of disability [5]. Therefore, instead of complaining about older people creating unsustainable burdens, we must be thinking about how we can assist older workers who are in good health and willing to work, to do just that, and to reskill if necessary.

The Grattan Institute report estimates that a 7% increase in mature-age labour force participation would raise the GDP in 2022 by approximately $25 billion [6].    Imagine the impact that would have on our national debt. Further, organisations that are inclusive and diverse have reported tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation. Older workers offer loyalty, low absenteeism, skills and experience. Older workers are also often willing to mentor younger staff and help others in the workplace. They are a good investment in human capital. Let’s not forget that older people are one of the largest and growing consumer markets. Having an age diverse workforce can provide a variety of perspectives to fuel ideas and innovation. It can also support businesses to respond better to the changing age profile of the Australian market.

We must also take note of the massive contributions older Australians make to volunteering, caring and other forms of unpaid work. Australians contribute over 700 million hours each year to volunteering and a significant portion of volunteers are older people.

Challenges of Age Discrimination

Sadly, the barriers of age discrimination continue to prevent older Australian from reaching their full potential and being valued for their contributions. The Australian Human Rights Commission conducted research in 2013, which found that one in ten businesses had an age above which they will not recruit, the average age being 50 years [7].

The issue is further reinforced by submissions we received during the Commission’s recent Willing to Work National Inquiry, which found that age discrimination could be found at all stages of employment. Through the voices of those who participated in the Willing to Work Inquiry, the Commission consistently heard that older workers, are subject to ageism, negative assumptions, myths and pervasive stereotypes associated with their age. They are seen as ‘overqualified’, ‘won’t fit the organisational culture’ or ‘not to be taken seriously as they are just looking for a path to retirement’.

Quotes from the inquiry included:

  • “It’s as if I’ve got a use by date on my forehead”.
  • “Employers look at my grey hair and I am told I don’t fit their client or customer base”
  • “I never felt my age until I had to look for work.”

Whether subtle or overt, the cumulative nature of age discrimination can have devastating effects on individuals, impacting on their physical and mental health, dignity, independence and self-esteem. The challenge of age discrimination we are facing today is widespread, damaging and contrary to human rights. It is also a terrible waste of the enormous potential of older Australians, many of whom are healthy, experienced and willing to work. At the same time, these challenges and the under-recognition of the value of older people presents an opportunity for us to be leaders and innovators in this area.

The benefits of an ageing population and workforce are numerous. I would encourage you all to think ahead to the years and decades before us. How will you capitalise on the future of our ageing workforce and consumer base? Will you be ahead of the game or losing the race?

Opportunities for Leadership


I feel very strongly that the Australian Public Service (APS) and state government public services should lead the way as a model employer for older people. Collectively the APS employs 12.5% of the entire Australian workforce. Data shows that the current APS workforce is generally older than the broader workforce, but more can be done to ensure that recruitment practices are also inclusive and non-discriminatory towards older workers [8].  I am also pushing for the development of an APS Employment Strategy for Older Workers, which I believe is a current gap.

Government policies must also match up to its goal of encouraging more older Australians to work past traditional retirement age. I am particularly concerned about the rising Age Pension age and existing laws and policies that still cut off at around the 65 mark. For example, workers compensation, taxation of redundancy payments and some income protection insurance schemes. These can be a barrier to both employers and older workers and I have been speaking to relevant Ministers and Departments about these issues.

The Government has made good progress in developing a new Career Transition Assistance Program, which will be trialled in five regions from 1 July 2018 before being rolled out nationally in July 2020. The Restart Wage Subsidy, which provides a financial incentive for businesses that employ an eligible mature age work is another positive initiative. However, it is not very well known or utilised and could be improved, for example, by removing the requirement that the mature job-seeker must have been on benefits for 12 months to be eligible.


Business and employers also have an important role to play as leaders and champions of age inclusion. Willing to Work Report makes a number of recommendations to business and employers about things they could do to improve age diversity in their organisations. These include:

  • Leaders committing to and championing inclusive workplaces
  • Insisting on non-discriminatory recruitment and retention practices
  • Offering flexible work arrangements wherever possible
  • Facilitating transitions to retirement, to work in other industries or occupations, or re-entry into the workforce
  • Setting targets for inclusive workplaces
  • Collecting baseline data to monitor progress

The Commission has produced an additional compilation Good Practice Examples: A Resource for Employers, which is available on the Commission’s website. This booklet contains a suite of good practice examples and strategies to help employers improve recruitment and retention of older workers.

There is no one size fits all approach and some businesses have found different ways to innovate and capitalise on the ageing workforce. Here are some examples:

  • City Motor Groups in Illawarra piloted an initiative where they hired older drivers on a casual basis to drive luxury cars from collection points. I’ve been told that results have been very positive – both for the older semi-retired driver who wanted flexible shift work and for the business who wanted reliable, experienced drivers.
  • Westpac Group – offers initiatives around flexible work, training and supports for transition to retirement. Currently more than 71% of Westpac’s employees are working flexibly. It has set a target to increase employees aged 50+ to more than 20.5% by 2019. Westpac received international recognition for its mature-age policies when it was awarded ‘Best Employer International’ by US organisation AARP in 2014.
  • Bunnings – travelling workers.

These examples show that change is realistic, achievable and some employers are already innovating and adapting to these opportunities.

Community and Individuals

It’s not just governments and businesses that can make a difference. Every one of us is key to redefining the conversation about the ageing among our networks and communities. On an individual level, I want to emphasise the importance of being conscious of and combatting stereotypes. Stereotypes can be embedded in our language and everyday behaviour. The majority of the time, people are simply not aware that they hold age-based stereotypes or that they might be discriminating against an older person.

I believe there is value in educating the broader community about age discrimination and providing practical examples and real life stories to shift perceptions. This could be done through tertiary modules for university students or professional development courses for HR and business professionals. Developing a module like this could even be a project for a PhD or Masters student.

Older people are also largely invisible in media, marketing and communication strategies. Students in design, media or PR may be inspired to come up with innovate ways to market to, or even better, involve older people in their communication strategies. Other potential areas for leadership or innovation include the further development of reverse-mentoring programs, senior entrepreneurships and mid-life career reskilling programs.

It is within your power to make a real difference, and I encourage you to take action and join me in supporting older Australians to live free from discrimination in our workplaces and communities.


It is going to take an army of champions to change attitudes so that our society and economy can reap the enormous potential and benefits of our ageing population.

If you are not motivated by that goal itself, self-interest should be sufficient. My final message to you is that barring a premature death, each and every one of you is going to get older. The example and culture that exists when you reach the stage of being an older worker will depend on the part you have had in setting an example and promoting the value of older Australians. It is up to you as to what the climate will be like in the mid-2000s – I hope it is different from today.


[1] The Treasury, 2015 Intergenerational Report - Overview (2015), p 8. At (viewed 22 May 2015).
[2]  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2014 (Cat. No. 3105.0.65.001). At (viewed 1 July 2016).
[3]  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Feature Article: Population by Age and Sex, Australia, States and Territories, 3101.0 – Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2015. At (viewed 3 February 2017). Commonwealth of Australia, 2015 Intergenerational Report: Australia in 2055 (5 March 2015), Report, p viii. At (viewed 3 February 2017).
[4] ABS Retirement and Retirement Intentions, Australia, July 2014 to June 2015 (Cat. No. 6238.0). At
[5]  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Life expectancy and disability in Australia: expected years living with and without disability, April 2017. At (viewed 20 April 2017).
[6]  Grattan Institute, Game-Changers: Economic reform priorities for Australia, Grattan Institute Report No. 2012-5, June, 2012, 50-52 at (viewed 26 April 2016). 
[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, Fact or Fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians, 2013, Key Findings.
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability, 80. At (viewed 21 April 2017).

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner

See Also

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Maximising the contribution of ageing Australians in our society and workplace

CEDA NSW Trustee Lunch Wednesday 27 March 2019 (Dr Patterson spoke to this paper) Thank you for inviting me to join you today. I, too, acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we gather on today, and pay my respects to the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation and their elders past, present and...

Speech Icon