Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Are Baby-Boomers Healthy Enough to Keep Working? Health as a Mediator of Extended Labour Force Participation

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Are Baby-Boomers Healthy Enough to Keep Working? Health as a Mediator of Extended Labour Force Participation

Article excerpt


Structural ageing of Australia's population means that baby-boomers (born 1946-65) are an important group for policy. They form an unusually large cohort; their socio-demographic characteristics differ substantially from previous generations; and the socio-economic context in which they will age has altered significantly over recent decades (Buckley 2008).

One important impact of structural ageing is a reduction in forecast economic growth (Treasury 2010: ix). This change will stretch fiscal capacity, as expenditure related to aged care, pension provision and health will rise as the population ages (Productivity Commission 2005: xii). Interventions to manage these pressures stem from the three Ps: population, productivity and participation (Productivity Commission 2005; Treasury 2010). Increasing total labour participation rates is seen as critical as the aged dependency ratio will fall from 5:1 today to a projected 2.7:1 in 2050 (Treasury 2010: viii), due to fewer new entrants to the labour market and more workers aged 55 and over who are more likely to exit the work force or work part-time (Treasury 2010a: 11; Access Economics 2001).

The participation component of the three Ps framework involves re-engaging workers with low or no labour force participation and implementing policies to encourage older workers to delay their exit from the workforce and facilitate part-time work in retirement (Productivity Commission 2005; Treasury 2010). In terms of overall participation rates, a large 10 percentage point increase in the participation rate of male workers aged 55 years and over would yield at most a 2 percentage point increase in overall participation (Treasury 2002: 28). However, this increase would still have significant fiscal benefits in relation to government expenditure on age pensions and private retirement incomes (Treasury 2002; Casey et al. 2003: 11; Productivity Commission 2005). In addition, as work has been shown to offer both health and social benefits, extended workforce participation has the potential to improve health outcomes through facilitating active engagement, thus reducing government health expenditure and contributing to better quality of life for older people (Aquino et al. 1996; Dave et al. 2008).

The baby-boomer cohort currently forms the core of the mature age workforce; yet most work-related research focuses on older workers per se and does not differentiate between baby-boomers and preceding cohorts. The terms 'baby-boomers', 'mid-life', 'mature' and 'older' are sometimes used synonymously. This means that many studies are interpreted as representing baby-boomers, even when the study samples do not fit within conventionally defined dates for the Australian baby boom (1946-1965; 1946-1961). (1)

Accurate definition of cohorts and age groups is important, as factors influencing health, lifestyle choices, workability and work decisions of individuals from different cohorts vary according to the social context prevailing when they were born and as they matured (Ryder 1997). Cohort effects are particularly important given the dramatic changes in work participation by age since 1970. Table 1 shows significant falls in male participation and substantial increases for females in all older age groups. This reflects both changing socioeconomic conditions and the rise of the dual income household as well as improved opportunities for women in employment and education since the 1970s. A similar trend is evident in the United States (Poulos & Nightingale 1997: 16).

Research on the health of older Australians has focused on disability and disease prevalence and the 'burden' on the health system (AIHW 2006; Adams et al. 2008; Atlantis et al. 2009) while research on extending labour participation focuses on re-skilling, re-training, and workplace management (Dawe 2009; Lawton Smith 2009; De Luna et al. 2010). However, little Australian research examines the relationship between health and workforce participation in older workers. …

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