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Why we need to get comfortable with working for life

Combining longer life expectancy with higher living costs in Australia means that we need to get comfortable with the idea of working for life!

Last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg encouraged older Australians, particularly those nearing retirement age, to simply keep working. “As a nation, we need to effectively leverage the three P’s – population, participation and productivity,” he wrote in a speech for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.  

And while this statement drew some heat from unions and political lobby groups, who helpfully pointed out the recent federal cuts to TAFE funding, the stats do seem to be bearing the Treasurer out.

Like it or not, Australia’s workforce is ageing. And according to government figures, we’re all going to be working for much longer than ever before.   

By 2055, the proportion of 60 to 64 year-olds in the workforce will grow 13 per cent for men and 17 per cent for women. And although average life expectancy growth has slowed, we’re still living much longer than previous generations. The average child born in 2017 can expect to live for 84.6 years in Australia – roughly 50 of which (most likely) will be spent working.  

Combine longer lives with higher living costs and you get the rising trend of ‘Un-Retirement’ – older Australians putting down the pruning shears and returning to the workforce, mostly out of financial necessity. Between 2016 and 2017, the ABS recorded 177,000 retirees over the age of 45 coming back to work. And the workplace they found when they got there probably wasn’t the same one they left.  


The changing nature of work  


With the widespread adoption of automation and machine learning, particularly for time-consuming manual tasks, employers are starting to look for candidates with different skills. Abilities and aptitudes that weren’t really part of the traditional educational model: problem solving, creativity, innovation and up-to-the-minute, industry-specific knowledge. Skills that add higher value to organisations than a thorough knowledge of Microsoft Excel.  

A recent Deloitte study, commissioned by RMIT, found that over half of professional employers struggle to find employees with the right skillset.  

For an ageing workforce, this is both challenge and opportunity. It means the job market is volatile and a little unpredictable, but it also means that core competencies like leadership and initiative – skills that are relevant across multiple industries and tend to improve over time – are more valuable now than ever before.  

And this, in turn, is disrupting the traditional arc of professional life: go to school, learn necessary skills, join the workforce, retire and move to Queensland. “The old three-stage pattern of preparing for work, working, and then retiring is fast disappearing,” Deloitte says, “yet many current workers have not had the opportunity to develop the career management competencies that they require to cope with, let alone thrive in, such an environment.” 

Enter lifelong learning. 


Education never stops   


Lifelong learning is one of the fastest growing cultural shifts in the Australian workforce. It’s basically a different way of thinking about education. Instead of learning being a defined period of time (that usually expires in your early 20s), it’s something that you practise throughout your entire professional career.  

“The education we received at 22 will not stand us in sufficiently good stead to support us through our careers,” says RMIT CEO Helen Souness. “Every individual should be asking themselves whether their current role is allowing them to develop new and relevant skillsets.” 

For an ageing workforce, this means cultivating skills that will remain relevant for decades. It means broadening our professional abilities and keeping up-to-date with emerging industry technology.  

The good news is that employers are making this process easier than ever before. According to Deloitte, over 95 per cent of employers recognised that the company, not just the employee, received some benefit from ongoing learning. Even better, 84 per cent of employers were willing to provide some form of support and ongoing training. Employee training budgets have also been increasing year-on-year since 2017.  

It’s hard to predict the flow-on effects of digitisation and automation, but experts can agree on one thing: a broad and ongoing education is our best chance to stay relevant in the workforce.  


The rise of online learning  


Understandably, the education sector has had to evolve to meet the changing demands of industry. If we’re all going to be working into our 70s, and if businesses need employees who can upskill quickly, particularly when it comes to new technologies, a three-year Bachelor’s degree isn’t particularly helpful.  

The decline of post-graduate employment in Australia reflects a broader trend towards less structured, more flexible education. In other words, online learning.  

Online short courses are generally faster and cheaper for students, and easier for tertiary institutions to iterate and improve. For people returning to the workforce, or those looking to future-proof their careers, online education providers like UDEMY and RMIT Online are invaluable resources.  

We might be working longer – that seems like an inevitable reality at this point – but we can also work smarter. Automation and workplace disruption don’t necessarily mean bad news for older Australians. We just need to follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”.  

interested in upskilling opportunities? Check out our future skills short courses here.

For more information on lifelong learning and professional development opportunities, check out how RMIT Online is working to transform businesses.  

This article was originally published on 14 July 2020