Thank you, Associate Professor Briony Dow, for the introduction and thank you to the University of Melbourne for inviting me to speak at the launch of these exciting and important ageing research initiatives.
I first wish to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
When I heard about the Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative I jumped at the opportunity to join you at the launch because my work as Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner has convinced me not only of the value of interdisciplinary research into these areas but the urgent need for more such research.
I am particularly pleased and honoured to be addressing you in tandem with the Hon Mark Butler.
Mark was Minister for Ageing in the Gillard government and provided outstanding leadership in developing policies and legislation that set up Australia’s greatly improved aged care services system.
The policies established by Minister Butler are world class in terms of accessibility and fairness. They reflect the strong desire of Australians to age in place, and provide for a funding approach which over the longer term will do just that.
As well, last year, Mark Butler published his book, “Advanced Australia: The Politics of Ageing” MUP, which is the most comprehensive and expert account yet of where Australia is at with the demographic revolution that we are now struggling with.
I strongly recommend it to all Hallmark researchers, no matter what your discipline is.
But we need still more policies and reforms in this area.
To realise fully the potential benefits of this revolution we need ongoing and strong commitment from Government, underpinned by evidence based research across disciplines, and greater collaboration with business and the community.
So I commend the University of Melbourne for developing initiatives to facilitate this crucial interdisciplinary approach and support the development of innovative policies around ageing— policies that we need urgently to deal with the economic, social and human rights implications.
A few comments about the National Inquiry:
In March last year, the Attorney-General George Brandis referred the National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination against Older Australians and Australians with Disability to the Australian Human Rights Commission. We called it “Willing to Work”.
The terms of reference required us to enquire into and report on practices, attitudes and Commonwealth laws that deny or diminish equal participation in employment of older Australians and Australians with disability. We will also make recommendations about any Commonwealth laws that should be made or amended and any other action that should be taken.
At its heart the Inquiry examines what more can be done to protect the right of older people and people with disability to work free from discrimination.
If we look at the ever growing cohort of Australians over 55 we see that in 2010, 71% of Australians aged 55-59 were working; 51% of 60-64 year olds were still there; but just 24% of those aged 65-69 years were participating in the labour force. Labour force participation declines very steeply with age.
While Australia’s labour force participation amongst older people is higher than OECD averages, there is still much scope to encourage older Australians to remain in or, re-enter, the workforce.
Overwhelmingly, the evidence to my inquiry indicates that older people themselves want and need to keep on working up to age pension age and beyond. About two thirds of them currently are blocked from doing this.
The denial of work to older people is highly damaging to them. As well, we all as taxpayers bear the brunt of this exclusion. A modest increase in workforce participation by over 55s would bring billions more to our national economy and massively reduce the burgeoning public expenditure on age pensions and health.
We knew that discrimination in the workplace was the major barrier but we set out on the inquiry to discover much more about the how and why of age discrimination and find possible solutions.
Progress of the Inquiry
From July last year with the Inquiry team I travelled all around Australia.
We held consultations from Darwin to Perth, Mount Isa to Launceston and Geelong to Geraldton, Port Lincoln to Alice Springs and so on to meet with individuals, community organisations, researchers, employers public and private and peak industry groups.
At the conclusion of our consultation phase we had conducted 121 consultations, meeting with over 1,170 people. Their input has been invaluable.
We received 342 submissions, including an outstanding joint submission from this University’s Hallmark Ageing and Disability Research Initiatives.
From this diverse range of contributions, we learned a great deal more about the barriers. As well, and just as important we did come across possible solutions. We discovered many effective and inspirational initiatives some employers are using the get rid of these barriers.
Our Willing to Work Report will be released sometime in May, depending on the ever changing parliamentary landscape.
Of particular interest to researchers will be the first national prevalence survey of age discrimination in the workplace, which I commissioned and published in the lead up to the inquiry. Key findings of this survey were disturbing:
o Over a quarter of Australians aged 50 years and over indicated that they had experienced some form of age discrimination in the workplace in the last two years.
o One third of people who had been discriminated against gave up looking for work as a result of the experience.
Along with confirming the high incidence of age discrimination in the workplace the survey found, to the surprise of many, that 44% of Australians aged 50 years and older who would have liked to but did not participate in the workforce in the last two years cited health problems as their main impediment .
This finding prompted us to establish an expert healthy ageing panel—to better understand the relationship between health and workforce participation, and to investigate ways that well-managed health can facilitate longevity in the workforce.
Directed by these experts, we found that there is a very strong link between chronic conditions and reduced workforce participation as we age. Significantly, current evidence beyond our survey tells us that:
o Poor health is a leading cause of premature and involuntary exit from the workforce. It has been reported that 50% of men and 20% of women who retire from full-time work before the age of 55 years do so because of ill health.
o Those who retire for health reasons, retire on average earlier than those retiring for any other reason. The average is 53.8 years for women and 55.8 years for men—this is of course significantly lower than age pension eligibility.
o The two most prevalent chronic conditions responsible for this reduced workforce participation are back problems and arthritis, followed by conditions such as mental and behavioural disorders, cardiovascular disease, depression and diabetes.
o Current trends and projections indicate that, if individuals, employers and Government do not change the approach to workplace health , these chronic conditions are likely to continue placing increasing pressure on achieving the goal of longer working lives
Recommendations for change
There is a strong case for reform in the area of workers health and community health
There is a need for the development of resources for employers large and small to assist them to make their workplaces more age-friendly in terms of physical and mental health issues.
In addition we need policies that help individuals themselves to maintain employability. These policies would facilitate better health behaviour by individuals, along with better access to retraining and upskilling.
While the healthy ageing research is just one aspect of our Inquiry, it provides a vivid illustration of the need for interdisciplinary research and action—policies to address age barriers cannot be developed within a discipline specific approach.
For example, research by a group of experimental psychologists at the University of Cambridge seeks to further our understanding of the way the human brain works – in particular how the brain continually remoulds neural connections as we learn, experience and adapt and whether a new understanding of these processes can help us train our brains better.
According to Professor Zoe Kourtzi (a member of the research team), the process of ‘learning to learn’ is at the core of flexible human behaviours and underpins how children acquire literacy and numeracy, but also how adults develop work-related skills later in life.
According to Professor Kourtzi, the parts of the brain that are used in learning vary according to a person’s age. The clear implication is that training programmes need to be geared for age.
I hope research such as this, and complementary research taking place in Australian universities will lead to the development of training programmes that cater better to the ever growing cohort of older Australians and help them acquire new skills at midlife or beyond that will fit them for another fifteen or twenty years of paid work.
New technology can play an important role in enabling older Australians to participate in the workforce for more years. Innovative use of technology in the workplace can assist job redesign so that older workers can maintain efficiency and productivity. For example, a worker who has injured her back can be assisted by technology so that the heavy lifting part of her task is done by a robot.
Injured workers can be supported by new technologies to recover more quickly and return to work. Rehabilitation should be the goal for injured workers at all ages, not just the under 50s.
Looking beyond the individual’s working life, continued research into supportive technologies will help older Australians remain living in their own homes as they age. Innovation can help their participation in community, as well as help improve their quality of life and that of their care givers.
E-health technologies, though brilliant, are still in their infancy in practice…let’s speed up their implementation.
At a broader level, interdisciplinary design for ageing should create a shift in our thinking and practice in how we design and build our homes, cities and public spaces. We are looking for collective, intergenerational and interdisciplinary discussion about how to better design the built environment so that people of all ages and abilities can be fully integrated.
There is a need in the context of both the Willing to Work Inquiry and broader ageing policy for a co-ordinated, whole of government response that includes collaboration and engagement of all relevant stakeholders.
These principles will undoubtedly also underpin the programs being launched here today. I am sure that your research will be crucial in supporting the changes that the Willing to Work Report advocates.
The 2015 Intergenerational Report sets out massive projections for Australia’s population over the next 40 years. The number of Australians aged 65 and over is projected to more than double by 2055, when there will be around 40,000 people aged 100 and over . Life expectancy continues to increase. In 2055, men can expect to live on average to 95.1 and women to 96.6 .
In order to prepare for these massive changes and make sure they are the positives for humanity they should be, we must remove existing barriers that stop older Australians from remaining in paid employment for many more years.
Then we want to support them to live their long post retirement years in good health, well connected with their communities.
I am certain that the Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative and Master of Ageing programs will contribute immensely to achieving these goals.