THE number of older workers with jobs in Australia has almost doubled in a decade, transforming workplaces and adding almost a million employees to meet the nation's skills shortages.
New data from the Bureau of Statistics shows that, on average, 1.93 million workers aged 55 and over were employed in 2011, almost double the 1.01 million employed a decade earlier.
A revolution in attitudes and opportunities, along with the ageing of the baby boomers, has meant older men and women worked on rather than take on early retirement.
The data shows that in 2011:
73 per cent of people aged 55 to 59 were in the workforce, up from 61 per cent a decade earlier and 55 per cent two decades ago.
Last year 65 per cent of women in their late 50s were working or looking for work as well as 81 per cent of men. In a decade, the number of this age group working has swelled from 587,000 to 952,000.
53 per cent of people aged 60 to 64 were still in the workforce, a dramatic increase from 35 per cent a decade ago. The participation rate has risen rapidly among men and women, to include 62 per cent of men in their early 60s, and 44 per cent of women up from 22 per cent a decade ago.
The growth in workers in their early 60s has been colossal: from 274,000 a decade ago to 634,000 now. The number of women working at that age has roughly trebled, from 90,000 to 268,000.
In perhaps the most startling development, 25 per cent of Australians aged 65 to 69 are still working, and more of them full-time than part-time.
One in every three men in their late 60s is now in the workforce, up from a bit over one in six a decade ago. Participation rates among women of that age have more than doubled, from 8 per cent to 18 per cent.
Employment and participation rates are also growing among people aged 70 and over, although at less dramatic pace. Last year 102,000 people were working in their 70s, 80s or 90s, up from 59,000 a decade earlier. Treasury forecasts that by 2050, Australia's ageing population will require an extra $60 billion a year of spending, paid for by extra taxes. But Treasury deputy secretary David Gruen has estimated that the gap could close if Australia's workforce participation rates rise to match the best in the Western world.
The fast-rising participation rates among older workers reflect changes in the economy, employer attitudes and aspirations.
Three big recessions in the 20 years to 1991 saw a million workers forced into early retirement. By contrast, with just one small recession and rising skills shortages since then, employers have hung on to older workers, even in the depths of the global financial crisis.
The Keating government's very gradual reform to align the pension ages of men and women has now lifted the female pension age from 60 to 64.5, rising to 65 in 2014. This has removed an incentive for women to take early retirement and in any case, the figures suggest women no longer see anything wrong with working in their 60s if they want to.
With Australians waiting until later to marry, have babies and buy houses, retirement is not an option for many 60 year olds.
Aspirations have risen, too. Surveys have found that people don't want to just retire on the pension, but to live well in their retirement.