By 2021 - in just two years - only 50 per cent of Australians are going to be working, says COTA's Tina Hogarth-Clarke.
The CEO of what was once known as the Council on the Ageing says systematic and entrenched age discrimination will be a rising hurdle for older workers, who will be essential for their individual and collective experience.
"Unless we want 12 and 13-year-olds working, some of these (workers) will be older people, and we need to retain them," Ms Hogarth-Clarke says.
"Half the people working have to support the other 50 per cent."
While workers brought in from overseas will also fill what is an increasingly fragmented and insecure job market, it will be important for many to keep working into their 70s as government pension support is further withdrawn.
Disturbingly, COTA found the likelihood of homelessness, depression and poverty is increasing for those growing older - whether working or not.
It's not helped by the difficulties of negotiating Centrelink and the Newstart programs.
"We have anecdotal - not just anecdotal - stories of how difficult it is to go to Newstart late in life," Ms Hogarth-Clarke told The Courier.
"The evidence is there that people over the age of 50 spend twice as long on Newstart. That's an indicator, a red flag, that there's an issue. It's not as though they are not out looking for work. I'd say that group of people are even more motivated because they generally have families to support, and mortgages. Newstart need to look at wraparound services."
Hogarth-Clarke says there are other barriers to reentering the workforce after redundancy or leaving, including a lack of skills or financial management. Generally, she says, people have a family they are supporting and they need wraparound support to retrain and get back into the workforce.
"It's not a matter of just going to TAFE and training, or going to Newstart and applying for a job," Hogarth-Clarke says.
"It's very different. It's a different environment. They might be really qualified in one area of their career. So where are you going to go, how are you going to use the skills you've trained in all your life?
"Look: some people have savings, they have shares, they have superannuation - but we're all just three months from homelessness, if we lost our job tomorrow. There is a strong link between people losing their jobs and homelessness, particularly the group working since they were 18, 19 or 20, had the same job for many years; yet they are still so close to homelessness. It's very frightening."
Hogarth-Clarke says society is growing and expanding rapidly, with IT is changing on a daily, almost hourly basis. Skills that were needed 10, 15, or 20 years ago are irrelevant to some jobs now.
"The government, the workers and the employers need to say, 'here are the changes that are happening; how are we going to focus attention on our workforce, to make a workforce that is ready for the future?' They are doing it for younger people.
"We need to get strategies in place; get workplaces to get rid of their ageist attitudes, and put processes in place for retention and retraining. Women are over-represented in this cohort of unemployed. They're taking years off work to be carers. They need specialist programs.
"Superannuation funds are looking at assisting people to make sure they have enough funds to live, not just making sure you have enough funds to 'retire'. What does retirement mean? Does it mean going into consulting? But people are also trying new things: 'I want to work outdoors, I want to start a fishing company,' - whatever your interests are, it's a time of opportunity.
"People spend so much time at work, that's their identity. When you leave, others stay and you're on the outside. It's very damaging; it's damaging when you don't have a plan. Until corporations and society attitudes change we're not going to value our older workers.
"And there is strong link between unemployment and suicide - not just unemployment of course; there are a range of issues. But it's another issue that is deeply troubling."
"We need to get strategies in place; get workplaces to get rid of their ageist attitudes, and put processes in place for retention and retraining.Tina Hogarth-Clarke
The Courier spoke to older Ballarat workers about the challenges and rewards of trying to change careers later in life.
Lindsay Brown - canvassing the future
Lindsay Brown opened his canvas custom design and repair business after finishing a career at Bartlett Blinds. He says he was no longer happy in the work he was doing after the position he was in changed. To their credit, Brown says, Bartletts assisted him to move into his own business, but the challenges of beginning again after decades working for someone else, and being in his late 40s, are daunting at first.
"I had 19 years until I could officially retire," Brown says.
"Am I going to be able to do this for that long? The answer was no."
Using excess machinery he purchased from Bartlett, Brown started Peppercorn Canvas, and began picking up their former repair customers. He says the timing was crucial: his children were finishing school, getting ready to go out on their own and the market was right; Bartlett had changed focus.
"I'd never run a small business before, but I had run the division (at Bartlett) and understood sales, inventory control and those other things, to a certain extent. I knew who to order through, what the materials were worth, knew I had to add GST."
But a small business was a lot more, and Brown was forced into learning about tax and personal accounting.
"There's been lots of challenges," he says.
The biggest (challenge) was stepping away from a 32-year security blanket.Lindsay Brown
"The biggest was stepping away from a 32-year security blanket. First week: great! Second week: Nahhh... I was ready to throw it in after the second week. I got as much help as I could, and all of sudden it was good. It all made sense again."
One of those people was Doctor Paul Miller, an entrepreneurship facilitator whose role is funded by the federal government.
"Part of job is to reassure people they are not on their own,' Dr Miller says.
"I send out a business-related calendar each month letting people know what is on around Ballarat. We talk about the entrepreneurial ecosystem: there's a lot of support both official and unofficial to use here."
Kate Serrurier - life on the land
"I'm 66, I'm happier than I've ever been, genuinely deeply happy," says Kate Serrurier.
The former teacher, health care and welfare worker has had several careers changes, but now lives off the land on her Cremona Hillside Farm.
"People get in a terrible tizz about having to change careers. It's all about status and lifestyle in my view. People worry they won't have a lifestyle: holidays in the Caribbean or overseas, or they'll have to drive an old car. It actually doesn't matter.
"I started life thinking I wanted to be a nurse, thinking I wanted to be a teacher and thinking I wanted to be a nurse. And I've done both of those, I was a secondary teacher for about 20 years. And then I got sick, had high blood pressure and thought it was time to get out.
"I went into working with victims of crime, I'd done some welfare work, and from that I went into managing a primary health service, a primary care service. Then I worked in flood recovery before going to Maryborough Health Service.
The challenge is about having to shift the lifestyle.Kate Serrurier
"Fear is the major challenge. 'What is my life going to be?' A lot of my social life at that time was around work, my social affirmation. Gradually, as I wasn't working, I found I didn't need to be surrounded by the workplace.
"I hang out with farmers now, and old hippies and people who recycle stuff. We're poor, we live off the farm, we don't go overseas or to restaurants, we don't buy new things - but we eat well, we have good friends. The challenge is about having to shift the lifestyle."
Lucy - the inhospitable hospitality industry
Lucy (not her real name) has had a varied employment history, working in a government department, before moving to Ballarat and going into hospitality. She says a lack of available training is damaging for older workers.
"I had skills in hospitality, but it was never supposed to be a long-term thing.
"Trying to re-engage with the university qualifications I already had was near-impossible given Ballarat doesn't offer certain vocations and is such a small place. So I'm stuck in the hospitality sector and have been for a long time.
"As you get older it becomes so much more physically demanding. It takes its toll; you get repetitive injuries. But trying to get out of the industry is impossible. My qualifications aren't relevant anymore. I've tried to undertake new courses - I signed up for one last year, but it was cancelled. And if you have a higher degree you can't get funding for anything below that.
"The service providers here are like, 'we'll put you on this or that, but we can't put you on a traineeship, or we can't put you on a course, because 15 years ago you did a bachelor degree, so you're not eligible.' You have all these brick walls.
"And then you don't have the money. It's become worse. Your opportunities are limited. So you keep getting sent back to hospitality. And in Ballarat many don't pay staff properly, don't pay penalties - there's a black list of places you don't want to work.
As you get older it becomes so much more physically demanding. It takes its toll; you get repetitive injuries. But trying to get out of the industry is impossible.Lucy
"Then hospitality irregular hours - 40 hours in busy periods to eight hours. And Newstart will make you apply for 20 jobs or 30 jobs if you're with them. And a lot you have worked for, or wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. The application is so much harder. Letters, police checks, KPIs: it's a full time job.There are so many junior positions now. They are not looking for what you bring; they just want to cut down on wages. It's disheartening."