Ageing boomers leave industry facing bust

A DEMOGRAPHER and author, Bernard Salt, says corporate Australia has a looming problem. Or, more specifically, 4 million to 5 million problems. That's about the number of baby boomers contemplating their exit from the labour market.

A DEMOGRAPHER and author, Bernard Salt, says corporate Australia has a looming problem. Or, more specifically, 4 million to 5 million problems. That's about the number of baby boomers contemplating their exit from the labour market.

"Our obsession with Generation Y has blindsided corporate Australia to the real issue, which is the skills transfer, knowledge transfer and labour exiting of the boomers," Salt says.

Baby boomers are loosely defined as those born from 1946 to 1964 (or, by Salt's definition, 1961). Although the first boomers reached 65 in 2011, some are wondering when the mass exit will begin.

Looking at options

The 2008 global financial crisis might have put many retirement plans on hold (via shrinking superannuation funds) but, even so, no one is sure how long boomers plan to stay in paid work.

"Within 10 years we'll see a lot more people working after 65, even 70," Salt says.

While governments relying on the boomers' tax dollars might find this a relief, it's unlikely older workers will plan to stay at work full time for too long. Portfolio retirements could be one solution, where a week in retirement is split between volunteering, looking after grandchildren and a day or two of paid work.

Crisis fears

An associate professor from the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, Sara Charlesworth, says many industries, such as community services, are underprepared for the coming shift in workplace demographics.

"The Productivity Commission recently noted the [high] age of workers within aged care," she says. "It is almost a crisis mode.

"We're living longer, so will require more care as we age ... yet the aged-care workforce is predominantly over 50."

She also points to a gap looming within tertiary education.

"There are a lot of baby boomers in universities and no real thought has been put into their replacements," she says.

Better planning

A senior research analyst at the University of Sydney's Workplace Research Centre, Dr Mike Rafferty, says our approach to work and retirement is far from optimal.

"We need to think about transitions that make a lot more sense - people should be able to go part time before they retire," he says, noting that as long as superannuation payments are calculated based on final salaries, there's a financial deterrent to going part time.

Graduated retirement schemes are another policy that might suit but, whatever happens, Salt says the next decade will have baby boomers shifting the status quo around work.

"We will see the first generation of university-educated retirees: people who are educated, opinionated, articulate, literate and with time on their hands," he says. "That's a dangerous combination."

CASE STUDY

At Melbourne manufacturing company PWB Anchor, there's no burying the head in the sand when it comes to an ageing workforce.

"About 55 per cent of our 85 staff are over 50," says the operations manager, Matt Wagenfeld. "Plus, we have a very high retention rate."

Wagenfeld says it's no accident that the business, which makes metal chains and lifting equipment, has an older workforce.

"We're under the pump competitively and we really need good people who can do things well, and are experienced and knowledgeable," he says. "Plus, we have very low turnover."

Semi-retired boomers are filling a gap for Wagenfeld by allowing PWB Anchor to keep high-level expertise in-house a day or two a week without the expense of full-time salaries.

Additionally, through the federal government's Corporate Champions program, PWB Anchor has been identifying and tackling potential skill and knowledge gaps planning that will flow into education programs and further conversations with staff about options for making the transition to retirement.

"We want our staff to know they have a very positive contribution to make," Wagenfeld says.

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