The Hon Mark Butler MP: Speech at the launch of ‘Access All Ages’

The Hon Mark Butler MP, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing. Transcript of address at the launch of Access All AgesOlder Workers and Commonwealth Laws, 30 May 2013, Parliament House, Canberra.


Thank you to the Attorney-General and Professor Croucher for hosting today’s event, and Susan Ryan for coming along and continuing the extraordinary work you’ve done in a relatively short period of time as the Age Discrimination Commissioner.

This for me as the Minister for Ageing is another report that confirms that we are a society that undervalues age in Australia. We’re a society that does not accord proper respect to older Australians, respect for the contribution that they’ve made over a very long period of time, raising their families, working hard and paying taxes, and building the community and the society that we enjoy today; but also respect for the contribution that older Australians can continue to make, and are continuing to make to our society irrespective of their age.

When I was first appointed Minister for Ageing by the Prime Minister a few years ago, my first interview was on a radio station in Adelaide. I was askedwhat are we going to do about the problem of ageing? I’ve since been asked how are going to deal with the burden of ageing? I’ve been asked by other journalists, how are we going to fix ageing? We have a very serious challenge in our community about the attitude we take to the extraordinary demographic shift that is underway.

The World Health Organisation, by contrast, describes the ageing process of communities, the fact that we are living about 25 years longer than we did 100 years ago, as one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. That is the work that Susan is trying to do, to try and get that frame, that picture across as a reflection of our appreciation of ageing.

There is, perhaps, no more significant aspect of our society in which there continues to be stigma, mythology, discrimination around ageing than Australian workplaces. Bill Shorten has had a lot to say about that as Minister for Workplace Relations over a long period of time.

This is in no-ones interest. It is most importantly not in the interests of older Australians themselves. Increasingly research and anecdotal evidence tells us that older Australians want more choice about how they interact with workplaces into their 60s and 70s. Recent research indicates that 60 per cent of people approaching the age of 65 would like to continue to work beyond the typical retirement age. Not necessarily in the same way or with the same hours that they worked through most of their employment, but often at a lower level of hours, and with more flexibility. But the message is that many want to continue to work.

The Human Rights Commission released research a year or two ago that indicated that the average older worker is worth about $2000 per year more than younger workers to employers because of lower absenteeism and better rates of retention. It’s not in the interests of individual employers to discriminate in the way we know too many employers do against people aged over 45. And for our broader employer community, it is not in their interests. Seven years ago, about 40,000 or 50,000 Australians reached the age of 65 every year. From 2011 onwards, that rate is more like 120,000 to 140,000 per year because of the ageing of the baby boomer generation. Increasingly if we are going to have a proper labour market supply for the next two or three decades, we are going to have to give people in their 60s more opportunity to continue to work if that is what they want to do. And the employer community needs to wake up to that.

But most importantly I think from a broader societal point of view, and Bill Shorten referred to this in the context of mental health, the greatest tragedy around this extraordinary achievement we’ve made as a society to live longer, to add these 25 years of life expectancy, would be if older Australians spent those 25 years feeling undervalued. Feeling like they didn’t have real choice about how to spend those years of retirement, including if they want to continue to be able to participate in the workforce.

Workplaces are a very clear reflection of our broader society. The composition of our workplaces and the values pursued in workplaces are a reflection of our society. This report confirms that we still have a lot of work to do in the area of older workers. Thankfully, Susan Ryan and Noeline Brown, our Ambassador for Ageing, and many, many like them , many represented in this room, are working day in and day out to change this ongoing cultural stigma we have in Australia around age, and this report’s a wonderful addition to that understanding.

Thank you very much for coming along today.