Urgent action needed to help mid-life workers, reveals Covid study

Nearly half a million Australians aged 51 to 65 are estimated to have had their jobs impacted by Covid-19, and urgent action is needed to arrest the slide.

That’s the finding of a comprehensive study by the charity Brotherhood of St Laurence and management consultants, the Nous Group, who combined to produce a new paper called Hidden in Plain Sight.

“We estimate up to 30 per cent of the newly un- or underemployed are aged 51 to 65,” the study says.

“This means nearly 400,000 Australians aged 51 to 65 have had their hours and/or employment impacted. The result is that this group of mature-age, low-income Australians is growing rapidly.”

The study calls on the government to address discrimination experienced by mature-age workers and ensure social security benefits such as the jobseeker payment “remain above subsistence levels”.

“The group will continue to increase, which means more people will require support. It also means that if the right support is not provided, the long-term challenges faced by this larger group will be amplified for them, their families, their communities and the economy.”

Prior to Covid-19, mature-age people on low incomes already faced diverse economic, social, personal and service-access challenges, says the charity.

“This paper shines a light on the impact of COVID-19 on mature-age, low-income people; a group ‘hidden in plain sight’. It builds on nearly a decade of research by the BSL on the experience of mature-age jobseekers and older people.”

The BSL said that providing early access to superannuation provides immediate financial relief to many people doing it tough.

However, for this age group, who have less time to regain employment and to grow their superannuation, early withdrawals may have long-term negative consequences, including greater demand for the Age Pension, people needing to work longer (assuming this is possible), and overall reduced economic security (such as inability to pay off a mortgage).

“People who continue to experience financial hardship after the rental moratorium period ends will be at risk of arrears or eviction. This means there will be increased housing insecurity, or even homelessness. ”

Dr Amber Mills, a senior research fellow at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, told Guardian Australia the loss of a job had “the potential to set off a cascade of other events”.

Asked why the challenges facing people aged 51 to 65 were “hidden in plain sight”, Mills says: “I think they’re not a group that typically one might think would be struggling because the assumption is that people in that age group who had an extensive working life would have resources to fall back on. In many instances that’s true and in many instances that’s not true.”

This paper sets out three actions that can be taken immediately to provide quick relief:

1. Strengthen the safety net by providing financial support for immediate needs such as utilities, public transport, medical services and supplies.

2. Deliver targeted communications to mature-age people so that they have access to clear information about where and how to seek help.

3. Boost funding to financial counselling to support mature-age, low-income people to make informed financial decisions.

It also makes a further 10 recommendations relating to social security, employment supports, housing and care:

1. Address discrimination experienced by mature-age workers through practical reforms, including:

• better targeting of education, training and upskilling opportunities

• improving access to careers advice for mature-age workers at risk of involuntary retirement or unemployment

• strengthening policies that promote workplace flexibility, inclusive employment and retention practices, including government demonstrating leadership through public service employment policies such as the Collaborative Partnership on Mature Age Employment.

2. Ensure mainstream employment services are adequately equipped to respond to the distinct needs of mature-age workers.

3. Continue and expand targeted superannuation schemes to promote greater equity within the system and economic security in retirement.

4. Ensure social security benefits remain above subsistence levels.

5. Benchmark the liquid asset test for JobSeeker against median incomes.

6. Index Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) payments to movements in national rents to provide immediate relief from housing stress and prevent erosion of the payment.

7. Improve security of tenure for renters, including by ending no-cause evictions and enabling reasonable home modifications to support people to age in their communities.

8. Facilitate greater collaboration between Commonwealth, state and local governments to grow social housing through a sustained investment plan.

9. Expand funding for social, financial and healthcare services available to mature-age and older people facing housing insecurity and/or homelessness as a result of COVID-19.

10. Introduce block-funded community care coordination to identify mature-age people at risk and help them navigate systems, minimise crises, facilitate housing security and maintain connections.

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