In defence of older workers

Nobody’s surprised to see the Abbott government attacking the unemployed, but there is something unexpected about its latest target: the aged. Recently, the Department of Employment told a Senate inquiry into the government’s welfare bill that ‘it is no longer acceptable for 55–59-year-old jobseekers to effectively retire on Newstart’. The Australian took up the story under the headline ‘Baby boomers blasted for “retiring” on dole money’, while A Current Affair warned ‘there’s a new class of retirees, too young for a pension and too old to find work. They’re living off you and I.’

While the rhetoric conjured images of cackling baby boomers using their dole payments to fund lavishly workshy lifestyles at the expense of the rest of us, the change mooted here by the government is modest. At present, unwaged workers over 55 aren’t required to meet a quota of job applications to get the dole if they perform at least 15 hours of volunteer or part-time work per fortnight. This is the ‘effective retirement’ in question: volunteer work. To treat volunteering as a kind of loophole that older people are exploiting – rather than a significant contribution to the economy, estimated by a 2012 study to be greater than that of the mining industry – is the kind of ideological move that, on the surface, makes no sense. But the surface here is the least of our problems: it’s the hidden nine-tenths of the iceberg we should be worried about.

The concept of dog-whistling has gained particular prominence when it comes to racism, but we should see it here too. When the Right complains that baby boomers are rapaciously volunteering, we need to understand they are deploying a whole set of ideological assumptions about – and attacks upon – older workers. We all know the familiar narrative in which boomers benefited from cheap housing, free education, secure full-time work, etc, and now cling greedily to their accumulated wealth at the expense of their children’s and grandchildren’s generations. We can read the same ideas expressed by conservatives (The Pinch: How the Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back) and progressives (What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?: How the Children of the Sixties Lived the Dream and Failed the Future). Or if a book sounds like too much work we can just scroll through the Scumbag Boomer meme online (featuring witticisms like, ‘fucked up the economy, asks why you don’t have a job).

But the boomer bashing ideas simply aren’t true. They are completely ideological, substituting an easy contempt for our elders for an actual analysis.

Put it this way: when someone says that immigrants are taking our jobs, most Overland readers can probably rattle of a critique in their sleep – this is an attempt to distract attention from structural unemployment, attacking class solidarity by fostering racial and nativist division, and also can’t we deconstruct this implicitly white nationalist ‘our’? But when we hear that baby boomers have taken our houses … crickets. Obviously there are important differences between racism and age discrimination, and it is not useful to conflate them. But we do need to see attacks on older workers for what they are: attacks on workers, attempts to isolate the vulnerable, excuse the powerful, and advance a reactionary agenda.

Sylvia Federici put this well when she wrote that intergenerational solidarity, particularly with older workers, had been the target of ‘a relentless campaign … portraying the provisions workers have won for their old age (like pensions and other forms of social security) as an economic time-bomb and heavy mortgage on the future of the young’.

Unemployment among older workers is real: the number of workers over 50 on Newstart increased by 40 percent between 2010 and 2013, and over the last year unemployment rose five times faster for workers over 50 than it did for those aged 21–29. The suggestion that this represents a blithe disinterest in work – that older workers have effectively retired – isn’t just facile, it also adds government insult to structural injury.

It’s hard to get accurate figures on age discrimination in hiring practices, but over two-thirds of complaints made to the age discrimination commissioner are about employment matters. (The government recently made the age discrimination commissioner’s role part-time.) Indeed, the government has recognised the prevalence of age discrimination in employment with their Restart program, which offers $10,000 payments to employers who hire workers over 50 who’ve been out of work at least six months. This seems bizarre to me – it’s already illegal to discriminate against older workers, so the government is basically paying bosses $10,000 if they make a token effort to comply with existing laws. But of course, conservatives can never admit that mass unemployment has become a permanent feature of the economy, or that employers systematically discriminate against older workers: they only know how to blame the victims and throw money at the private sector.

I work with older people who are at risk of homelessness. Many of them fall into the category the government is now attacking. They find themselves unemployed in their mid to late 50s and quickly learn they are all but invisible to potential employers. They struggle to survive on the dole, knowing there’s almost no chance anyone’s going to hire them and they’re left with little choice but to bide their time until they become eligible for an aged pension. They pay ever-increasing rents and utility bills; some start figuring out which meals they can skip, which medication they can do without. Meanwhile, they jump through elaborate and ridiculous Centrelink hoops and apply for piles of jobs they know they can’t get. To call all this demoralising is an understatement, but to call it a retirement is a new low in political discourse.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Shane McGrath is a tenancy worker at Housing for the Aged Action Group, based in Melbourne.

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  1. Great article that helps put these struggles in perspective. We young uns are often too quick to blame our parents.

  2. Eliminate unemployment of older workers who are “used” as “volunteers”. They have a wealth of experience. Pay for their valuable labour provided. Volunteering time is a crime.

    • Fantastic! I did the 15hrs per week volunteer work and it cost me an extra $20 in parking, petrol used, plus shoes to walk to the job because nearer parking was not available, and, as you say the employer gained my ‘wealth of experience’ that I contributed and I gained just more cost to me, so I had to give it up. I am now looking at doing some study.

      • Go the study idea Janine!!! You will love it 🙂

        Yes Donna – pay for volunteers time – one way would be to reduce ‘volunteer’ board members of non-profit organisations who get large lump sum payouts when their ‘volunteering’ board member contract is complete.

  3. How come we don’t get this sort of impactful socio-economic stuff at the T20 summit? To answer my own not so rhetorical question, probably because the T20 summit is more akin to T20 cricket than a test of any country’s socio-economic polices in relation the fabled but ultimately unfathomable economic bottom line, because that’s how the deviations of normative sciences ‘work’, allegedly . Oh well, back to the cricket.

  4. Great article – and so important. I’m amazed how little discussion there has been about these attacks on older workers, and particularly the impact on older women who have less superannuation and who are working casual jobs in their mid sixties, as well as performing unpaid labour of childcare for their full time working children.

  5. Over the past 18 months, federal ministers have public spending on pensions and healthcare as ‘intergenerational theft.’

    But the Greens, eager to convert young adults into a vote-bank, are especially keen to play this card.

    Ellen Sandell, Greens candidate for Melbourne in the upcoming Victorian election, has as ‘a full-blown generational war… between young and old, past and future’:

    :Firstly, this debate is pitting the voices of the past against the views and perspectives of younger generations. Secondly, it’s a fight between staying locked into ancient 19th century energy technology versus unlocking the clean, renewable energy resources that will power Australia into tomorrow…

    When you know that you will be directly affected by decisions made by those in power, you think about things in a new light. It’s an entirely different world-view to those who are only a decade or two away from leaving this world behind…

    As electoral mobilization depends increasingly on narrow appeals to demographic subgroups, you’d expect this kind of sloganeering (more brazen than dog-whistling) to get worse.

    Parties lacking any genuine ideological heterogeneity rely instead on patching together ad-hoc voter-bases, temporary coalitions taking advantage of labour-market segmentation, and varying levels of creditworthiness and asset ownership, between young and older workers.

    These political appeals also depend on the familiar partitioning of consumers by niche marketing according to ascriptive traits (age, sex, ethnicity) and identity. Young people may readily see themselves as a political constituency when they’re used to ads addressing them as unique creatures with their own needs, tastes, cultural outlook, etc.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    I’ve definitely been guilty in the past of baby boomer bashing. I am quite amenable to having my mind changed on that – I know lots of people are struggling. I guess my issues with them have been around the housing market and the way that it keeps younger people out of the race. But yes, I could possibly be biased a tad there 🙂

    Volunteering is wonderful and I did not know it contributes as much as it does to the economy. The more of us volunteering the better as the current economy continues its decay, and while different paradigms such as the “gift economy” come into being, changing our ideas about how we “do money”.

  7. I am one of those “older” workers. I have tried for positions so many times, and always get told either “over qualified” or “too old” for the job, if I ever get to an interview. I have tried finding positions to telecommute as able to edit/proof read manuscripts, but always get underbid by others willing to work for 1.50-3.00 per hour – doesn’t pay for the internet and not worth doing. So I do some volunteering which lets other “full-time” workers off the hook to work, while I do useful things like being secretary/treasurer for rural fire brigade service.

  8. If you think it’s bad there, you can’t imagine how bad it is in the US. I’m “only” 41, but I haven’t been able to get a full-time job in years. And we have virtually no safety net. We’re (both societies, apparently) cannabalizing ourselves.

  9. Great article.

    The attack on older workers does not surprise me, nor is it unexpected. Remember the ‘great debate’ of around five years ago, and the Horrible Aged Care Burden all younger australians were going to have to fund?

    This framing of older people requiring care as an unbearable hardship on younger people was distressing and disrespectful and divisive.

    Yes – I also agree with the general attack on workers. It links through to the idea that if you do not participate in full time employment you will (as an individual of course) be entirely responsible for the grinding halt of a magnificent capitalist society.

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