The Social Construction of Retirement and Evolving Policy Discourse of Working Longer


28 February 2015

This paper examines the evolving and competing 'world views' about older workers and retirement from a public policy and social advocacy perspective. It identifies contradictions and disjunctions within public policies aimed at changing employer behaviour towards older workers. We argue that serious flaws in the current representations of older workers provide a weak basis for policy development and potentially exacerbate prejudicial attitudes towards older workers in society. In addition, we argue that the issue of older workers' employment should be examined within the context of mainstream labour market issues. Directing these workers towards market-driven mainstream programs recognises the negative attitudes towards ageing but avoids trapping older workers in employment placements sheltered from competition.

Historically, the political discourse concerning the employment of older workers has shifted depending on economic conditions and labour scarcity. Interestingly, despite historically high levels of youth unemployment in the wake of the global financial crisis, it is considered essential that the age of final labour market withdrawal be pushed out in industrialised societies grappling with the potential effects of population ageing on social welfare systems. The policy discussion has shifted dramatically in recent decades from being about early exit to the identification of pathways into late-career work.

Notably, the term 'productive ageing' has been popularised to refer to fully maximising the potential of older people. We assert that there has been an emergence of a new narrative focused on working longer that describes the years formerly regarded to be retirement as productive and centred on employment, with those regarded to be 'unproductive' viewed as not fully contributing to society. We examine such narratives, arguing that contradictions within this approach have provided a weak foundation for policy development, possibly encouraging ageist attitudes and behaviours, and undermining older workers' labour market position.

Recent public policy thinking in Australia exemplifies a shift among industrialised countries towards the view that early retirement is no longer tenable if economies are to remain competitive and to respond effectively to population ageing. Similarly, new public policies have emerged aimed at closing off early retirement pathways and promoting longer work lives. Quickly, older workers have passed from being viewed as blockages who should make way for younger labour market entrants to being active agents in the labour market with capabilities and, moreover, the obligation to continue to contribute economically.

While there has been a marked public policy shift in favour of prolonging working lives negative age stereotypes remain pervasive and influence behaviour. The pervasiveness of age stereotyping of workers has received much attention in the literature and research has consistently found that employer attitudes to both older and younger workers are stereotypical.

In attempting to represent the labour market status of older workers, we identify that both the vulnerability and productivity narratives are deficient. This means that much of the present public discourse obscures proper consideration of issues surrounding older workers’ employment, reinforcing, on the one hand, existing negative age-based perceptions concerning their capacities and potential economic contribution and, on the other, ignoring gaps in their potential which place limits on the extent of their labour force attachment. Both narratives may undermine the status of older workers and contribute to greater social inequality, economic insecurity and reduced well-being, with potentially adverse consequences for successful transitions to retirement.

Policy making is needed that counterbalances the language of aspiration to prolong working lives with practical policies that recognise the vulnerabilities of some older workers. This includes recognising that, for those with severe impediments to working, some form of 'early exit' may represent a legitimate pathway, affording a measure of social respect, in defiance of what is arguably the dominant construction of active ageing.

Further, we argue that the current propensity for age-based policy making segments the labour market in a way that is unwarranted. Present policy approaches to prolonging working lives also appear to draw upon ageist assumptions about both younger and older workers, and do not acknowledge the considerable diversity of the latter.

Some commentators have argued that policies directed at older workers alone ignore the age and age group dynamics that inform workplace practices, while others suggest that older workers are best accommodated within collective intergenerational structures. This points towards public policy and advocacy that takes a broader approach to the management of age in workplaces.

Age-segregated labour market programs may reinforce perceptions of disadvantage rather than create the potential for mobility and transitions. Directing older jobseekers towards market-driven mainstream programs recognises the existence of negative attitudes towards ageing without trapping older jobseekers in employment placements sheltered from labour market competition.