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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) Older Australians, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 10 December 2022.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Older Australians. Retrieved from https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians
Older Australians. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 30 November 2021, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Older Australians [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2022 Dec. 10]. Available from: https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, Older Australians, viewed 10 December 2022, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians
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Older Australians are important contributors to Australia’s labour force. Studies have demonstrated that for older people who are able to and wish to continue working, employment can provide a variety of benefits (Waddell and Burton 2006). Employment can assist in maintaining good health, promoting diversity in work environments and reducing demand on publicly-funded pensions. This page explores the workforce participation and retirement patterns of older Australians (aged 65 and over).
Throughout this page, ‘older people’ refers to people aged 65 and over. Where this definition does not apply, the age group in focus is specified. The ‘Older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ feature article defines older people as aged 50 and over. This definition does not apply to this page, with Indigenous Australians aged 50–64 not included in the information presented.
In April 2021, approximately 619,000 older Australians (aged 65 and over) were employed in the labour force. Of these older workers, 3 in 5 (61%) were men and 2 in 5 were women (39%) (ABS 2021b).
Australians are increasingly working to older ages. In the 20 years leading up to April 2021, the workforce participation rate of older Australians more than doubled (from 6.1% in 2001 to 15% in 2021) (ABS 2021b). Increases in labour force participation for men and women over this period have been substantial—the participation rate for older men almost doubled (from 10% to 19%), while older women’s participation almost quadrupled (from 3.0% to 11%) (Figure 9.1) (ABS 2021b).
Figure 9.1: Australian workforce participation rate by age group and sex over time, 2010–2021
The line graph shows that the workforce participation rate among older Australians has increased (11% in April 2010 to 15% in April 2021). Workforce participation in older females was lower than for older males.
Older Australians may remain in or return to the workforce for many reasons. These reasons may differ between individuals, as people take into consideration their health and economic circumstances, as well as job availability, working arrangements and family commitments. The type of work being undertaken, informal caring commitments, the presence of an employed spouse or partner, and presence of additional supporting income are also likely to contribute to individual decision making around employment. These decisions have flow-on effects to workforce participation rates. Older Australians today also have an increased life expectancy and increased years of disability-free life (for more information, see ‘Life expectancy’ in Health—status and functioning). As such, individuals may have both an increased need and an increased capacity to work longer. Furthermore, changing eligibility criteria for access to superannuation and the Age Pension may see an increasing number of people aged 65 and over remain in the workforce (for more information, see Income and finance).
In May 2021, employed older people were most commonly working as professionals, managers, and clerical and administrative workers (ABS 2021c). Older people were most commonly employed in the industries of health care and social assistance, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and education and training. Their roles were most likely to be as professionals, managers or clerical and administrative workers (ABS 2021c) (Table 9.1).
Clerical and administrative workers
Technicians and trades workers
Machinery operators and drivers
Community and personal service workers
Source: ABS 2021c.
In April 2021, 49% of older employed persons were employed full-time (301,200 people), and 51% were employed part-time (317,800 people) (ABS 2021b). In younger age groups (those aged 25–54), around 3 in 4 employed people worked full-time. For those aged 55–64, this reduced to 2 in 3, and for those aged 65 and over, 1 in 2 (ABS 2021b) (see Table 9.2).
Note: Proportion of people data taken at April 2021.
Source: ABS 2021b.
In April 2021, almost 2 in 5 (58%) employed older men worked on a full-time basis, and over 1 in 3 (35%) employed women. Almost 3 in 4 (72%) older Australians employed on a full-time basis were men. The split of older men and women in part-time employment was almost equal (50%) (Figure 9.2) (ABS 2021b).
Figure 9.2: Australian employment participation by age group and sex over time, 2016–2021
The line graph shows that the number of older Australians in full-time and part-time employment has increased since 2016. In April 2021, there were a similar number of older males and females employed part-time (158,000 and 160,000 respectively), while there were more males than females employed full-time (217,000 and 84,300 respectively).
The proportions of older Australians employed full-time and part-time have remained relatively consistent over the past 6 years for both men and women (ABS 2021b). Since April 2016, over 7 in 10 older full-time workers have been men (74% in 2016, 72% in 2021) (ABS 2021b). For older part-time employees, the proportions of men and women have remained at approximately 50% each (ABS 2021b).
The significant health challenges resulting from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic have had substantial impacts on the Australian labour force. Declines in employment were largest among the youngest (18–24) and oldest (65–74) age groups in the workforce (Biddle et al. 2020). COVID-19 is likely to have impacted the trend data on employment and work, as well as those relating to income support.
For more information on older Australians receiving government assistance, see Income and finance.
Some older people are either working less than they would like to or are looking for work (also referred to as underemployment and unemployment, respectively; see ‘Key terms’ box below). For older Australians (aged 65 and over) in April 2021:
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definitions:
Figure 9.3: Older Australians’ unemployment rate by sex over time, 2010–2021
The line graph shows that there has been fluctuation in the unemployment rate among older Australians since 2010. Increases in the unemployment rate for older Australians were substantial between April 2019 to April 2020, and again to April 2021. As of April 2021 the unemployment rate for older females was higher than males (3.6% and 2.4% respectively).
Labour force participation rates among older people (aged 65 and over) have increased over time, and vary between countries. Australia and Canada have very similar rates (both 15% in 2019) (OECD 2021). Western European countries have lower rates (for example, 5.1% in Italy in 2019), while some other Pacific countries have much higher rates (for example, 24% in New Zealand) (OECD 2021) (OECD 2021). These differences may reflect the global variation in both the longevity of the older population and the availability of social supports, such as government-funded pensions.
Figure 9.4: Labour force participation rate for older populations in selected countries, 1999, 2009 and 2019
The bar chart shows that the labour force participation of older people in Australia is similar to other selected countries such Canada (both 15% in 2019). Labour force participation of older people in Australia remains higher than in countries such as Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, but lower than New Zealand and Korea.
The ABS defines retirement as requiring people to have previously worked in a job for any duration, including jobs that lasted for less than 2 weeks, and have retired from work or looking for work, and did not intend to look for or take up work in the future (ABS 2020).
In 2018–19, there were 3.9 million retirees in Australia aged 45 and over, with the average retirement age being 55.4. Men were more likely to retire at older ages than women (the average age at retirement was 60 for men and 52 for women) (ABS 2020).
The most common reasons for retirement in 2018–19 were:
In 2018–19, just under 1 in 5 (18%) people aged 45–64 reported that they intended to retire before age 65, 1 in 3 (33%) intended to retire at between 65 and 69, and 1 in 10 (11%) after age 70. A further 2 in 5 (38%) reported that they did not know when they intended to retire. The average intended retirement age was 66 (66 for men and 65 for women) (ABS 2020) (Table 9.3).
Persons aged 45–64
Did not know
Persons aged 45 and over
Average age intends to retire
Source: ABS 2020, various releases.
Experiences after retirement can potentially lead to people returning to the workforce. In 2018–19, approximately 143,500 people in the labour force had previously retired (ABS 2020). Reasons for returning to work included financial need, boredom, and other reasons (that they no longer needed to care for a partner or family member, the death of a partner, or separation or divorce from a partner) (ABS 2020). For information about income during retirement, see Income and finance.
For more information on older Australians’ employment and work, see:
Information about volunteering and informal care can be found in the Social support.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2020. Retirement and retirement intentions, Australia. ABS cat. no. 6238.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2021.
ABS 2021a. Labour force, Australia. ABS cat. no. 6202.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2021.
ABS 2021b. Labour force, Australia, detailed. ABS cat. no. 6291.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2021.
ABS 2021c. Labour force, Australia, detailed, quarterly. ABS cat. no. 6291.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2021.
ABS 2021d. Labour force, Australia, methodology. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 4 June 2021.
Biddle N, Edwards B, Gray M and Sollis K 2020. Hardship, distress, and resilience: the initial impacts of COVID-19 in Australia. Canberra: Australian National University Centre for Social Research and Methods. Viewed 4 June 2021.
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2021. Labour force statistics – sex and age indicators. OECD: Paris. Viewed 14 April 2021.
Waddell G and Burton K 2006. Is work good for your health and well-being? London: The Stationery Office.
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