Article By Adele Horin
Women in the prime of life rather than men in their 60s are the key to tackling Australia’s looming labour shortage and retirement income crisis, a study shows.
It says Australian women, aged 25-54, are the biggest source of underutilised labour, with large numbers out of the workforce or working relatively few hours.
“Women’s ability and willingness to do more paid work will be an important determinant of economic growth in coming decades,” it says.
The study, by the Women’s Economic Policy Analysis Unit, at Curtin University of Technology, casts doubt on the Federal Government’s focus on the retention of older men in the workforce to solve the problems of an ageing, dependent population.
It is prime-aged women, rather than older men, who are most likely to be in demand in coming decades as the service industry continues to grow, the study says. But women will need incentives and help to make it worth their while to work more hours.
The study has been sent to the House of Representatives standing committee on employment and workplace relations, which is holding an inquiry into how to increase participation in paid work. By 2020, Australia will have 500,000 jobs without anyone to do them, the Boston Consulting Group predicts.
The study’s author, Siobhan Austen, associate professor of economics at Curtin University’s business school, said the Government “for ideological and economic reasons” had put too much focus on trying to retain older workers while ignoring the big pool of underutilised women.
“Older workers may respond to twigging of government policy, like later access to superannuation,” she said.
“But it’s going to be tough to change workforce culture and attitudes to older workers.”
She said there was a lot more scope to secure higher workforce participation among prime-aged Australian women. For a start, history had shown Australian women went to work during periods of labour shortages.
As well, the proportion of non-employed women aged 25-54 was much higher in Australia than in Britain or 15 European countries, according to the latest comparable data (1995).
For example, 39 per cent of Australian women aged 25-54 were not employed, compared with 31 per cent of British women.
“The numerical significance of this group of non-employed women indicates this group could be a major source of future labour supply,” the paper says.
In addition, a much higher proportion of women aged 25-54 than men worked part-time, and had the potential to increase their hours of work.
Other factors in women’s favour included continued growth of the services sector, which has traditionally favoured employment of women; and women’s rising education levels, with more women than men now holding bachelor degrees.
The looming labour shortages, the demand for skilled service workers and the large number of underutilised women will create an environment for more Australian women to work or to extend their hours of work.
But the study says whether women will respond to the opportunities will depend on progress on the home front – including the division of housework – and provision of better forms of paid leave, high-quality child care and elderly care.
“These [policies] are likely to be increasingly seen as economic imperatives if shortages of labour develop,” Dr Austen said.
Without institutional support to help men and women combine paid and unpaid work, women who expanded their paid work role would “face increasing burdens and conflicts”.
Fathers would rather be with children
A new report shows fathers with young children are spending more time at work although they don’t want to.
The Victorian report blames financial and workplace pressures. The research says one in five fathers have worked more than 11 hours overtime each week since having children.
One in three fathers with dependant children said they would prefer to work fewer hours.
The study, commissioned by the Victorian Government, says 45 per cent of fathers feel stressed at work and want to spend more time with their families.
Source: SMH 080903