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.

Shane McGrath

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

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