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New thinking needed on part-time work for experienced professionals

Part-time work has been a growing feature of the Australian labour market landscape for some years.  The research suggests that part-time employment has risen across all industries.

Part-time work has its upsides and downsides.  For example, many people voluntarily choose part-time, enabling them to better juggle caring and work responsibilities or to transition slowly into retirement.  Others are forced into part-time work when they would rather be working full-time because organisations are increasingly offering more part-time than full-time roles.

While Australia seems to have a culture of feminised part-time work with 68 per cent of women in part-time roles, it is rare to find part-time management roles. Part-time is deemed to be incompatible with complex and challenging management responsibilities.  Choosing to work part-time has also been associated with having a lack of commitment which is why many professionals avoid requesting it, even when company policies support it. 

This is one of the reasons why only 6.4 per cent of managerial roles are undertaken part-time.

This can be a problem for older workers who generally have significant knowledge and experience gained over long working lives.  Many of them are in management positions. As they head towards the traditional retirement age or look to start a new business, their opportunities to transition to high quality part-time work are limited.

Yet there are significant benefits for business that are usually overlooked.  The loss of skills and experience built over  long careers means that business often loses important institutional and corporate knowledge when older workers retire.  These professionals represent an important cohort of potential mentors for younger, less experienced employees.  Flexible retirements or return stints to work on particular projects would ensure that skills and knowledge are not lost to employers, yet it is rare to find such arrangements in place in Australia.

This is incredibly short sighted on a number of fronts.  By 2041 the number of people aged 65 and over is projected to soar to between 21 and 23 per cent of the population compared to just 13.5 per cent in 2010.  At the same time, fewer younger people will be entering the job market.

The loss to the Australian economy of not utilising the skills and experience of older workers has been estimated to be in excess of $10.8 billion.

Outdated stereotypes about older workers contribute to a lack of engagement on the part of business to the important issue of an ageing workforce and its long-term impact.  

However, the trend towards remaining in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age means that increasingly, older workers will look for greater flexibility at work. 

The benefits for older workers from not abruptly leaving the workforce, which has often been their dominant form of social engagement, are well known.  The ability to remain connected and valued is critical to well-being.

The win/win for older workers and business in retaining skills and experience is yet to be realised in Australia to any significant degree. A greater acceptance of workplace innovations like job sharing in senior roles to enable part-time opportunities for older professionals easing out of the workforce is perhaps one way to address the problem.

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