China’s one-child policy and why older people can’t find work

Regular readers of this column will know that I recently wrote a book about working into later life, Extending your use-by date. Strange as it may seem, the theme of the book is linked to a recent change of policy in China. That country’s government has recently announced the end of its controversial one-child policy. Couples will now be allowed to have two children.

The reason for the Chinese Government’s reversal of policy is not a sudden concern to meet parents’ wishes, but because it has finally realised it needs to do something drastic to address the ageing of the population and the lack of young people coming through to replace them in the workforce.

One child policy

This is not a problem only for China.  According to the United Nations, the proportion of the world’s population aged 60 years or over was 12 per cent in 2013, and is expected to reach 21 per cent in 2050. The spread is uneven, however, with the least developed nations less affected.

Examples from developing economies include: Singapore: by 2030, one in five citizens is likely to be 65 and above as compared to one in nine in 2015; UK: in the next five years, the total population is forecast to rise by 3%, but the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12%; USA: by 2060, the numbers of older people is forecast to reach about 98 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2013.

Adult students in a computer lab

In Australia, the proportion of Australians over the age of 65 is around 13%. In the next 40 years or so that figure is expected to almost double to about a quarter of the population – around eight million people. At the same time, the birth rate is declining.

For China and Australia and other developed countries, one issue is that there will be fewer people in the workforce, which has implications for both maintaining productivity and for the amount of revenue raised through taxation.

An ageing population will also potentially place heavier demands on health services and, in countries that provide government pensions for their citizens, on the welfare budget.

That is why some countries, including Australia, the UK, and France, have announced an increase in the retirement age, i.e. the age at which such a pension becomes payable.

Keeping older people in the workforce is therefore arguably something to aim for, especially as people are now living longer, and hence potentially capable of continuing to work.

The potential benefits are that the level of productivity is maintained, taxes are still being collected, and older workers have more money in their pockets, and are arguably more content with their lot. I say ‘arguably’ because some people hate their jobs or have health issues and just can’t wait to retire.

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Here there comes the hitch, the fly in the ointment, the snag, the unexpected obstacle: age discrimination.

In the same week that China announced the repeal of its one-child policy, an Australian report revealed that a Government scheme to encourage employers to take on older workers had been a flop.

Introduced in 2014, the Restart scheme offered employers $10,000 over two years to employ people over 50, who had been unemployed and on income support for at least six months. The intention was to jack up the Australian mature-age workforce by 32,000 every year but, according to the New Daily, the actual number was 2318, around 7% of the target.

The $ amount was never enough to entice employers over a two-year period, and from November 1 the Government has reduced the period to 12 months, but not increased the figure to employers.

The real stumbling block, however, is not the money, it’s employer (and social) attitudes. Older people consistently find it difficult if not impossible, to be re-employed after leaving work voluntarily or through a redundancy.

This is despite the mounting evidence that people are capable of learning and training into older age, and that they have built up skills and knowledge that can contribute significantly to an organisation’s well-being.

This is not an issue only in Australia. The Huffington Post reported that a Georgia Institute of Technology review of the U.S. government’s 2014 Displaced Worker Survey found that someone 50 years or older is likely to be unemployed for almost six weeks longer than someone between the ages of 30 and 49, and close to eleven weeks longer than people between the ages of 20 and 29.

The study also discovered that the odds of being re-employed decrease by 2.6 percent for each one-year increase in age.

In Australia, the Human Rights Commission found that more than a quarter of 2000 workers surveyed said they had been discriminated against because of their age.

So, although the workforce is ageing, older people are living longer (and staying heathier too), and the proportion of younger people is declining, it’s still tough for older people to get back into work once they’ve left it, because of employer and societal attitudes.

The big question is: will those attitudes change in the face of a changing population age profile, and of the potential for productivity and hence the standard of living to drop because those older workers who want to work are being denied the opportunity?

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

What writers say:

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

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