Small businesses cannot afford to ignore the challenges and opportunities that come with Australia's ageing population.
The demographic shift has implications for small businesses' marketing strategies and staffing, as well as bringing potential opportunities for providing services to a mature population.
The proportion of Australia's population 65 years of age or older has grown from 8 per cent in 1970-71 to 13 per cent in 2001-02. In 40 years' time, a quarter of the population will be aged over 65. The number of working-age people to support each retiree will fall from five people today to 2.7 in 2049-50.
SMEs obviously don't have the scale or expertise to start building nursing homes or manufacturing pharmaceuticals, but they can still benefit.
A professor of actuarial studies at the University of NSW, Michael Sherris, identifies several areas that small businesses can target.
''A lot of financial advisers and small accounting firms provide advice and will be providing more advice to people who are retiring and getting older,'' he says.
''There's advice around savings and better awareness of longevity - a lot of people aren't really aware of how long they may live and how variable that is and what the best approach is in terms of savings.''
Services for an increasingly infirm population are also likely to be a growth area.
''A lot of small businesses could cater for people who can't really get to supermarkets and drive and things that they used to do,'' he says. ''This could be an area for smaller operators, because there's not necessarily a size advantage for those sorts of businesses.''
Sherris says the online provision of services presents another opportunity for small businesses. ''The generation that is retiring in future years is going to be a lot more tech savvy, and is using mobile phones and the internet much more,'' he says.
He says builders and home designers can expect more work, too, as they adapt homes for mature consumers in the coming years.
The director of enterprise advisers at professional services firm PKF, Matthew Field, says small businesses could get access to industries on the periphery of the aged-care sector, such as cleaning and the supply of linen and food.
''The health sector is one that will probably never feel the full effect of an economic downturn, because health services are funded by government and they are always in demand,'' he says. SMEs in the leisure sector, which provide goods such as boats and caravans, are already getting a spike in sales from the ageing population, Field says.
''They're finding that Australians are living longer, they're cashed up - with the exception of those whose retirement savings have taken a bit of a dip - and they want to maintain the lifestyle they had when they were younger.''
Graeme Smith, of business advisory Senior Coach, says all businesses, regardless of the sector they are in, need to recognise their customers are on average growing older and adjust their marketing strategy accordingly.
''For some companies, the reality of their marketing is that they are definitely excluding mature-age consumers and it will be to their enormous cost,'' he says.
He points out that even companies selling products and services that at first glance may seem to have nothing to do with the elderly - for instance, baby supplies - should consider whether they can afford to exclude the elderly demographic. ''The grandmother buying is a huge influence in that market,'' Smith says.
Companies should take a fresh look at their marketing to ensure it is not aimed solely at young people and ensure they employ mature workers to deal with mature customers.
Field says the ageing of Australia's population will create challenges and opportunities for SMEs looking for staff. He says baby boomers who delayed their retirement after suffering investment losses in the recent global financial crisis would be leaving the workforce en masse in the next 10 or 15 years.
''What this is doing is creating a bulge in that demographic, which means that rather than have that traditional trickle through of the workforce into retirement mode we're having this spike, this flood of people retiring,'' Field says.
''Rather than leaving in a trickle that allows training and retraining of people below them, they're going to be leaving in masses and creating a challenge for the skilled labour force.''
Field says that in the meantime, some SMEs are starting to tap into the potential of the older workforce. ''A lot of SMEs are starting to re-engage these people even on a casual or contract basis because of the skill set they bring, and experience and maturity,'' he says.