How old is too old? Age, Work and Migration in Australia

07 November 2012

In an increasingly competitive global market for skilled older workers, Australia should significantly revise or remove entirely its age restrictions on workers (up until a couple of months ago this was 45, and now it has just been increased to 50 largely to accommodate the needs of the mining industry).


We have one policy inside Australia to encourage older worker participation but this stops at the border, unlike the USA and the EU, which do not impose age restrictions. If we are to attract older workers, particularly for the care industry, we need to change 20 year old regulations that no longer fit the times. It's skills not age which are the issue. 

Whilst under Australian law age discrimination is unlawful, an exception is made in the case of immigration. The second report of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC ) inquiry 'Grey areas – Age Barriers to Work in Commonwealth Laws' (2012) maintains that there is no reason to change. However the argument presented only cites countries that also have age criteria (Canada and New Zealand) while ignoring much more significant economic rivals such as the United States and the European Union, where there are no such restrictions. 

Given demographic shifts, global competition for workers of all ages means that Australia may be left behind if it puts unnecessary restrictions on older workers. A number of respondents to the first consultation indicated that age ranges should be modified or abolished (South Australian Government, Seniors Australia, COTA, ACTU). 

However, the ALRC states that 'it is difficult for barriers based on age to be removed altogether, given the valid public policy function that they serve' (p201). This is equivalent to saying we support age discrimination in this area because we already have it. The supportive argument to this case, that older migrants do not reach a 'base case' of contribution, is unsupported by evidence as it is based on a 'typical Australian male' (199). The point that older migrants actually bring accrued skills and assets from their donor country, which Australia does not have the expense of creating, is not addressed. 

Initial analysis of Census data by the Brotherhood indicates that older workers born abroad are actually more productive than those born in Australia (Azpitarte & Biggs, in preparation). The reasons for this trend are complex, but appear to indicate that the advantages of targeting skills is working, and has little to do with migrant age per se.

The relative absence of critical study in this area means that data is inadequate to come to a firm conclusion on economic contribution. However it would be wrong for this data vacuum to be filled by age-prejudice. 

Perceptions of older people are changing both nationally and internationally, with policy developments that emphasise the value of older workers and the extension of working life to accommodate a longer life-course. For national economies older workers produce benefits of increasing tax dollars and personal savings and reduce claims on the state through pensions. In terms of migration, older adults bring assets and other benefits generated elsewhere into the host economy, as skilled workers or as active retirees. It has also been argued that older societies may be more productive as a consequence of the contribution of older citizens. 

Nations that create barriers to older migration, such as is currently the case for Australia, run the risk not only of perpetuating age discrimination, but failing to take advantage of population change in a global context. 

For further information, read: Simon Biggs, Marthe Fredvang and Irja Haapala, 'Not in Australia. Migration, work and age discrimination', Australasian Journal on Ageing, early View, 29 Oct 2012

Key points

Perceptions of older people are changing both nationally and internationally, with developments that emphasise the value of older workers.

While Australian Government policy emphasises the contribution of older citizens, this has not been reflected in migration policies.

In terms of migration, older adults bring assets and other benefits generated elsewhere into the host economy, as skilled workers or as active retirees.

Nations that create barriers to older migration, such as is the case for Australia, run the risk of perpetuating age discrimination and failing to adapt to global population trends.

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