MANY older Australians are facing a disasterous financial future, destined to spend their twilight years in poverty.
As the pandemic has crippled businesses across the country, seniors have found themselves pushed out of work and into the dole queue; but unlike younger people many have few prospects of ever working again.
There is currently only one job vacancy for every 13 people on JobSeeker or Youth Allowance; and in Australia's notoriously ageist employment environment, many highly skilled older blue and white collar workers will likely never again pick up a wage cheque.
In the meantime superannuation funds have rung alarm bells at the number of people who have raided their retirement nest eggs, particularly those with low balances and few, if any, work years ahead of them to rebuild.
Now, those who become unemployed after September will face another financial blow - the reintroduction of the contentious Liquid Assets Waiting Period.
Seniors' advocates have welcomed the Federal Government's announcement that the JobKeeper scheme will be extended after September and there will be continued additional support for people on JobSeeker (albeit both at reduced rates). However, they have criticised the decision to reintroduce the LAWP.
They would particularly like to see unemployed mature workers exempted as they are among the most vulnerable in a long term recession.
The LAWP prevents people who have been made unemployed from receiving JobSeeker payments for a period of time based on how much liquid assets such as money in the bank or other easily converted assets they have.
A single person with no dependents who have $5500 of liquid assets must wait one week before receiving JobSeeker support; $11,000 if they have a partner or are single with dependants. Single job seekers will not receive welfare benefits for 13 weeks if their liquid assets are $11,500 or more and couples or singles with dependents must wait 13 weeks for payment if their assets are $23,000 or more. There are some exemptions.
The LAWP for JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance and Austudy was removed on March 25, 2020 but Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced it will be reintroduced from the end of September.
The Prime Minister also announced the $550 per fortnight JobSeeker supplement will drop to $250 from the end of September but the income free area will be extended to $300 allowing people to earn that amount before their benefits are cut. A further decision on the future of JobSeeker payments will be made nearer the end of the year.
The JobKeeper program, which provides eligible businesses with a $1500-a-fortnight per staff member wage subsidy, will be extended until March 28 next year but at $1200 a fortnight for full-time staff from the end of September. At the start of January it will be cut again to $1000.
Part-time staff working fewer than 20 hours a week will have their subsidy reduced to $750 a fortnight from the end of September reducing to $650 from January.
In the current climate many older Australians will be out of work for years through no fault of their own. Forcing them to spend all of their savings before being provided with income support will leave them living in poverty as they age, with negative consequences for their health and wellbeing.
Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia has called on the Goverrnment to reverse its decision on the LAWP. Chief executive Ian Yates said it was deeply disappointing to see the LAWP reinstated when the overall JobSeeker asset test was sufficient to determine need.
"As we know, mature age workers are too often at the bottom of employers' lists, and they dominate the long term unemployed numbers.
"In the current climate many older Australians will be out of work for years through no fault of their own. Forcing them to spend all of their savings before being provided with income support will leave them living in poverty as they age, with negative consequences for their health and wellbeing."
Along with a permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker comparable with the new supplement, COTA is also calling for the October budget to include a 40 per cent increase to the maximum rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance to help all unemployed people in the private rental market.
"The new JobSeeker coronavirus supplement of $125 per week from September is welcome. But after 20 years of no significant increase in the former Newstart means it is long past time for the Government to announce a comparable permanent increase," said Mr Yates.
"Despite the best efforts of Government, older Australians face unique barriers to employment that remain deeply entrenched in our society and workforce.
"Historically workers in their 50s and 60s are more likely to be made redundant and targeted with "voluntary separation" packages. We have also seen past examples of older workers being unable to re-join the workforce after global economic downturns, as we expect to see in coming months as the economy recovers from COVID-19."
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Survey, prior to COVID-19, the official median time searching for work for someone aged 55-64 who has been unemployed more than a year was 166 weeks (or just over 3 years).
"In reality it's longer because many have stopped trying to find a job and are no longer counted as unemployed", said Mr Yates.
"Age discrimination barriers are often insurmountable and force mature age Australians to suffer significantly, whilst waiting to be eligible for the Age Pension," he said.
"This forced early retirement will have a devastating impact on older Australians, draining precious retirement savings built up over many years and reducing their quality of life as they age."
Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie said Australia couldn't go back to the brutality of an unemployment benefit rate of $40 a day and called on the Government to recognise the reality of the job market and housing costs in deciding the future of the JobSeeker payment.
"We have just experienced the largest fall in jobs since the Great Depression. More people than ever before will struggle to find paid work. People are desperate to find jobs but there are not enough available.
"An inadequate JobSeeker payment makes it harder for people to find paid work. People need enough to cover the basics, including housing costs, and to avoid financial distress in order to be able to effectively search for paid work.
"Even with the doubling of the JobSeeker rate, Anglicare has found only 1.5 per cent of rental properties are affordable nationally.
Flinders University Human Resources and Management expert Dr Valerie Caines and collegues have warned employers not to make hasty decisions in either dismissing or discounting the input of older workers in an article - Older Workers: Past, Present and Future published in the Australian Journal of Management.
"Employers are well known for targeting mature workers when downsizing their workforce - but this might be a costly mistake," said Dr Caines.
She noted that governments can also overlook the value of older workers, as shown by the SA Government recently pulling its funding to DOME (the Don't Overlook Mature Experience training organisation), which provided valuable support services to mature job seekers.
"A common mistake is to think of mature workers as all being the same," said Dr Caines. "There is huge variation among mature workers' motivations, capabilities and needs. Their experience is especially valuable now, because mature workers can offer considerable value to an organisation during a crisis and play an important role in helping a business progress to the 'next normal'."
Employers are well known for targeting mature workers when downsizing their workforce - but this might be a costly mistake.
Dr Caines said older workers may also hold the solution for filling employment gaps in organisations, due to diverse skill sets they have developed through their working life.
"Mature adults demonstrate considerable resilience," she said. "The aspect of role modelling resilience is an especially important influence on younger workers. It includes mature coping strategies, emotional intelligence and empathy - and these attributes have never been more important in the workforce."
Dr Caines said such resilience represented a key capability for workers engaged in the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the accelerating embrace of Artificial Intelligence, robotics and automation.