Jan French and Joan Moore from the Finishing Touch, which mainly employs women aged between 50 and 70. Photo: Paul Jeffers
When she hit her mid-50s, Joan Moore suddenly found herself with time on her hands. She and her husband had just sold their newsagency. She had arrived at a familiar point for people who have worked all their lives: what next?
For some, the temptation is to slip into an early retirement, a wind-down after a working life well played. But not for Moore. "I just wanted to do something else after being busy all the time," she says.
A friend was working for The Finishing Touch packing and unpacking service, a Melbourne company then in its infancy. The firm is based on the idea that people need help and reassurance when faced with the stress of moving, and who better to provide it than an older woman with the maturity and experience of running a home?
Joan Moore was a perfect fit. Almost 18 years later, as she approaches her 73rd birthday, she remains an integral part of an older workforce that has been quietly redefining expectations about the length of a career, and why older employees offer skills their younger counterparts don't.
For anyone with an eye to Australia's population trends since the Second World War, the greying of Australia comes as no surprise. The ageing of the baby boomers was always going to mean a greater strain on the public purse, both in terms of the pension and health costs.
Yet this demographic certainty was underpinned by the belief that the Commonwealth would financially support older Australians as they moved - or were moved out - of paid work.
That belief has been swiftly eroded, with the recent federal budget revealing plans to extend the pension age to 70 by 2035, providing the legislation can win the approval of the uncertain numbers in the Senate. That change follows the decision by the previous Labor government to increase the pension age to 67.
Governments are telling Australians that as they get older they must keep working, unless they are among the minority who are self-funded retirees. It is a confronting ultimatum that challenges many of our assumptions about the length of our working lives, and what retirement - full or partial - will actually mean. That's premised, of course, on jobs being available for older workers, generally defined as over the age of 45. And for those in physically demanding jobs, the future of work is, at best, problematic.
In his budget speech that announced lifting the pension age, Treasurer Joe Hockey called for a change in the culture of many businesses towards older workers. Exhortations to work longer mean nothing if employers don't value workers as they age.
Age discrimination is alive and well in Australian workplaces, with Victoria's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner Kate Jenkins describing it as both systemic and accepted. Examples provided to Fairfax Media recently included a 53-year-old property manager at a real estate company that preferred younger staff being subjected to ageist jokes, ridicule and insults.
Gerard Mansour, Victoria's Commissioner for Senior Victorians, says that regardless of what happens from the discussions about raising the pension age, we are already seeing a fundamental shift in the approach to retirement.
"You see an increasing number of people who are wanting to abandon that concept that on a particular date you go cold turkey and suddenly you stop your involvement in work," he says.
Mansour has been developing a whole-of-government plan for older Victorians, and the role of work has been an integral part of his research. He has identified two key angles: the response of workers and employers.
Workers in their 40s and 50s need to ask themselves what kind of work do they see themselves doing into their 60s. This may involve some radical thinking and shifts in career directions. As Mansour says, it is more than just a financial question, for value of work is also tied up in personal health and well-being.
Employers also need to deal with the issue of older workers. He likens this to the 1980s discussion about accommodating workers with family responsibilities: how can rosters and the nature and structure of work be modified to cater for the needs of older staff?
Mansour says that while there are some "really good" examples of employers doing this, the majority haven't considered the question.
The public policy response has been to provide incentives and support for employers to hire older workers. The budget scrapped the Mature Age Worker Tax Offset, but replaced it with up to $10,000 in government funding if employers give a job to someone 50 or older.
Connecting older workers and employers will be an integral part of this brave new world of a greyer workforce.
Judy Higgins ran the Queensland government's Experience Pays awareness strategy, a "fabulous" program which she says is no longer funded. But awareness, it emerged, was only part of the equation.
"One of the things I found was that employers were saying that's all fine, but where are they? We don't know where to find people over the age of 45."
In the meantime, Higgins was living the reality of older workers being discarded first hand. Her husband Shane was moved sideways after a successful career in sales, along with every other colleague over the age of 50. He was out of work for two years.
Their son suggested they start a jobs board for older workers and that's how olderworkers.com.au was born almost five years ago.
"And it's just grown, and grown and grown," she says. The business employs the couple, now in their 60s, and their son.
The site is used by some of Australia's biggest employers, who list their job vacancies for a fee. Higgins doesn't have exact figures on how many people have found work, as they often click straight through to the employer's own website. But the repeat business suggests it is working well.
Given their first-hand experience, Higgins and her husband are well aware of what age discrimination in the workplace can mean. ''We have a fair bit of empathy for people who have been looking for some time," she says. "Age discrimination is alive and well in this country when it comes to employment."
They offer employers the opportunity to sign a pledge, which is basically about considering older workers as part of the mix in their workforce.
In the Brighton offices of the Finishing Touch, an older workforce isn't considered a concession, but an asset.
It's a prime example of a company that has seen not only the benefits of older workers, but their potential as a point of difference.
Susan Williams had the idea while working for removal companies, where she estimated the cost of jobs. She had just returned from Japan, where she had been working for Bob Ansett.
The eureka moment occurred as she watched people moving being left in a forest of a hundred cartons to unpack. Back then, no removal company was offering an unpacking service.
The extension of the idea was looking at the kind of person you wanted to unpack for you, and essentially reassemble your life; where to put things, in a way that was also neat and tidy and ordered. People who knew how to make and run a home seemed the ideal choice.
"And that's why I thought of my mum," says Williams. Jean Williams had raised three children, and run a household. She was perfect for the job.
Soon, the jobs became bigger, and Williams' mother suggested her friends as ideal employees. The company now has almost 200 workers on its books across the country, with an average age of 55.
The workforce has 87 per cent of its workers above the age of 50, with nine - like Joan Moore - who have turned 70.
Williams runs the business with her partner, Steve Hitchings, a refugee from a high-powered international career in the computer industry.
Hitchings looks after the backroom side of the business, which now rates as one of Australia's biggest mature-age employers.
Even in the company's head office, there is no one under 40. Sigrid, the first point of contact when you enter the office, is a former bank manager.
Hitchings says the profile of the workforce is typically empty-nesters, who have usually taken time out from paid work to raise children. But they don't want full-time, high-powered jobs.
Older workers have different demands on them and priorities, and need the flexibility in the way they work. They may have an elderly parent who needs to be taken to doctors' appointments, or they might need to care for grandchildren.
They also want time off to take breaks. Moore, for example, is about to join a Finishing Touch co-worker on a walk across England.
The peak time for the business is December and January, with many people moving house then because of the busy spring real estate season. That's the time when the workers must be available. Beyond that, there is maximum flexibility.
Hitchings says that the workers use an online system to log when they are unavailable.
Much of the debate about how long we work is understandably couched in financial terms, given the change in the age the pension can be accessed. Having enough money to survive - and even thrive - in retirement is a critical question.
Among the Finishing Touch workforce, Hitchings says that for some women, the motivation is to have their own money, or pay for certain expenses such as grandchildren's school fees.
But beyond the money, there is a deeper satisfaction that comes from work. "I enjoy what I'm doing," says Moore. "I enjoy what I do. It's rewarding especially for young mums and older people, older than I am, that move. It's very daunting for them to see all their goods in boxes.
"And when you don't have any attachment to any of their goods it's very easy to unpack it and put it away."
At 58, Jan French is now where Moore began, having joined the company two years ago. She owns an antique shop with her husband, but there was not enough work for the both of them. Like Moore, money isn't the main driver in her job.
"For me, its a sense of self-satisfaction," she says. "I was given the opportunity to become a group leader quite quickly . So that's good for your own self-esteem, when you are getting back into a new job and you think, I can't be doing things too badly."
And there is the satisfaction from making order out of chaos. ''When you finish and walk out, you know you've made somebody very happy and very relieved."
Shane Green is an associate editor of The Age.