Employability of older Canadians

CARP presents its message to The Alliance of Sector Councils.

This is a presentation by Judy Cutler, CARP’s former co-director of Government Relations, to The Alliance of Sector Councils. Ottawa, October 29, 2007.

I am very grateful for this opportunity to share some of CARP’s views regarding older workers – based on what we hear from our members and others – and, I must say, my own experience.

After I was out of the workforce for several years as a full-time caregiver for my mother, it was quite the task to get back on track and find a job. It wasn’t so much that there weren’t any jobs, but I suddenly had to face the fact that I was now considered an older worker – and the stigma that that entailed.

“We have created demographic silos where age groupings are pitted against each other, including in the workplace.”

If we as a society honoured the maturity and wisdom of age, this would not make sense. But we live in a youth-oriented society instead of a society for all ages which does make sense. Instead, we have created demographic silos where age groupings are pitted against each other, including in the workplace.

There are still places in Canada where a big obstacle for seniors who want to, or have to work is mandatory retirement – including in federally regulated industries. Let me make it clear that CARP is against mandatory retirement.

In our view, it is a human right for Canadians to have choice about when to retire based on ability, not on age. Let me also make it clear that CARP does not endorse mandatory employment in any shape or form.

“In our view, it is a human right for Canadians to have choice about when to retire based on ability, not on age.”

We believe in the “carrot” of incentives rather than the “stick” of enforcement. And, there is plenty of room for incentives to engage and re-engage older workers.

The reality is that most Canadians will continue to look forward to retirement – at varying ages, of course. But, many others want to, or have to work as long as they can. It is short-sighted to ignore the fact that they continue to have much to offer – especially today when we are living longer, healthier and more actively than ever before.

Seniors often return to work in some capacity after their retirement – either continuing in familiar areas or venturing into new territories of experience. It is our view that more people could be enticed to do so.

We would like to see a federal/provincial/territorial national strategy to promote older workers’ participation in the workforce – including educational programs both to reduce ageism and to promote the value of older workers.

The thing is that the mindset must change – by employers, other employees and even the older workers themselves, if we are to dispel myths and attitudes about age that take on a life of their own.

As you know, Canada, like the rest of the world, is experiencing an unprecedented demographic evolution that will see one in four Canadians 65 and older by 2030. At the same time, the current lower birth rate has already created a smaller cohort of younger people. Clearly this means a shortage of workers to replace the surge of retirement by War Babies (born between 1939 and 1945) and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965). Immigration alone will not fill the gap. But, older workers can bridge the gap between supply and demand.

I talked about changing mindsets. Let me reiterate that there is a basic need for social attitudes and practices that embrace what older workers can bring to the labour market – and I am sure that you share my view that there is much to embrace.

“Let me reiterate that there is a basic need for social attitudes and practices that embrace what older workers can bring to the labour market.”

It’s commonly expressed that today’s 65 is the new 45! Therefore, what a mistake and waste to buy into ageist myths, stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination! For example, older people are not necessarily frail, slow or sick. They are able to learn new information and skills. In fact, they bring with them life experience, work expertise, commitment AND a passion for life long learning.

To quote former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan on the occasion of an International Day of Older Persons, “the whole world stands to gain from an empowered older generation, with the potential to make tremendous contributions to the development process and to the work of building more productive, peaceful, and sustainable societies.”

This dynamic can and should be harnessed, nurtured and used for the benefit of individuals, the workplace and society. Matching the skills of older Canadians with the jobs that have to be filled in a broad and creative manner is the way to go — for example, recognizing that a person can apply a skill set in one field to quite another field. Of course, this requires vision, imagination and thinking outside the box rather than getting weighed down with stereotypical lower expectations. Of course, in some cases, training, retraining and/or upgrading may be necessary.

I faced a challenge when I returned to work after being a full-time caregiver for my mother for two years – a challenge apart from my age. It amazed and depressed me to find that most employers did not think or act outside the box. Let me explain what I mean. My experience was in the arts in Canada, the USA and Britain, and as a volunteer in social development in India, Nepal and Tibet. I was quite proud of what I had achieved. However, when I applied for jobs, no-one seemed to make the leap that what I had done, and was good at, could be applied to other sectors and positions.

But, there is nothing unique or special in being able to transfer knowledge and skill.

Let me take this argument further. Some jobs can and should draw on non-professional experience such as the skills implicit in homemaking, for example. Or a trade that has been a hobby, like carpentry, cooking, artwork, etc. or even in the voluntary sector.

And, of those who are frail, either physically or mentally, many are still capable of activity, even if at times limited. For example, they can work from home with modern means of technology and communication. Their contribution can still be significant – for employers and for themselves.

If call centres for Canadian services can be located in India, and they are, as we know, then workers can be stationed in their own homes.

There is a whole world of possibility if we create opportunities for the young and the old to exchange, share and learn from each other in terms of skills, experience and ideas. Together they can create a dynamic, robust and productive workforce – and go a long way in dispelling the myths that I referred to and the ageism that exists in our society.

“There is a whole world of possibility if we create opportunities for the young and the old to exchange, share and learn from each other in terms of skills, experience and ideas.”

Mentoring, counseling, consulting and coaching are useful and can enhance the knowledge of both young and old. This could be especially appropriate for those retired Canadians who want to work part-time or on contract.

CARP is very concerned about the estimated 5 million family caregivers across the country. Their role in homecare can’t be ignored. But neither can their plight. Since many of them continue to work, or leave work to be full-time caregivers, policies must be in place for flexible work hours and reasonable leaves of absence.

For substantial leaves of absence, we would like to see a distinct EI fund and eligibility for more than the current limited period of palliative end of life care. Also, the stop-out provision in CPP for new parents should be extended to family caregivers who leave work to provide eldercare; and we believe that in this case “family” should mean anyone in this situation.

A huge challenge is what I call the “re-entry” phase of caregiving – after the caregiving, then what?

As I found out, the world had changed and so had I. The skills that served me well before caregiving just weren’t enough four years later. For example, I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. I had certainly lost my confidence. We need to have a post-caregiving support system to help with the transition back into the labour market.

In conclusion, I would like to share with you some of the recommendations that CARP presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources regarding Employability in Canada:

• A standing Senate or House of Commons Committee to identify and combat ageism. This is being done under Senator Sharon Carstairs.

• A national strategy and campaign to encourage older workers to stay in, or return to, the workforce including phased retirement, shorter hours, benefits and tax credits for training and education.

• Incentives for employers to retain and hire older workers such as funding and/or tax credits for training, retraining and upgrading.

• Programs to promote intergenerational dialogue and exchange of experiences and ideas as well as to bridge gaps through mentoring, coaching, counseling.

• Abolition of Mandatory Retirement based on age across the country without replacing it with Mandatory Employment.

• A national strategy for unpaid caregivers: a distinct EI fund and a CPP stop out provision for those who leave work to provide eldercare; and, flexible hours and reasonable leaves of absence for those who continue to work.

• Access to CPP at age 60 without having to leave work to apply.

• Incentives, training and support for seniors to start small businesses – e.g. interest-free or forgivable loan/grants, tax credits, etc.

Let me add one or two more very quickly:

• Some form of health and pension benefits for older workers – such as continued contribution to CPP and further extension of age at which RRSPs have to be converted to RRIFs.

• Exemption of a portion of employment earnings from GIS clawback provisions.

The Alliance of Sector Councils consists of organizations that address skills development issues in key sectors of the economy.

Copyright 2007 CARP.ca