An Old Man’s Game

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Any business model that relies on young, physically capable men as its source of labour will be overwhelmed in the coming decades by demographic change.

The Challenge

Construction work is the quintessential young man’s game. It’s hard work, exposed to the elements and punishing on the body. That’s why most tradies are young men who expect to be ‘off the tools’ by their mid-forties.

But for how much longer can this expectation be met?

Here are four charts to convince you the answer to this question is, “probably not much.”

30 years ago, less than a quarter of all the hours worked in construction were done by people aged over 45. That figure has since climbed to 34% and it’s accelerating.

Age_Shares

This shift is being driven by Australia’s rapidly ageing population. Since 1970, the number of Australians aged 60 and over has doubled. And this ‘grey march’ has got a long way to go yet.

Plot 1378

The rest of the economy has already bowed to the pressure of the ageing population, with workers aged 45+ capturing 60% more of today’s jobs market than they did 30 years ago. Construction is trying to hold back the tide, but eventually it will age with the rest of us.

Plot 1381

This is a problem for construction. A few decades of working on the tools takes its toll. Up to about age 50, most construction workers can keep working without major problems. But beyond 50, the rates of debilitating injury rocket.

Plot 1384

So what happens when older workers are carrying half the country’s construction workload – a point we’ll reach in about a decade? Here’s some thoughts:

  • Tell your kids to become physiotherapists – there are going to be plenty of clients and it’s one of the few jobs a robot probably won’t steal.
  • The cost curve for workers’ compensation claims will look a lot like the disability chart above. The brunt will ultimately be borne by taxpayers.
  • An economic hand brake – older workers with injuries are slower than they were in their youth. The construction sector will become even less productive as it ages.

The Opportunity

The ageing population means that construction must find ways to retain older workers. It must make construction work less physically demanding.

This represents a great opportunity for new technology.

Moving construction from the site to the factory is no doubt one part of the solution. State-of-the-art factories—like Langs’ manufacturing facility on the Sunshine Coast—accommodate many ageing-friendly task designs.

Yet the reality of building means that the heavy lifting will never be completely eliminated.

Enter the ‘exosuit’ – a lightweight, streamlined vest that reduces the load associated with manual handling. Wearing an exosuit makes a 20kg bag of concrete feel like 10kg. It means you can work all day with your arms above your head without them falling off.

Many of these devices have been comprehensively proven in other industries. The EksoVest from US company Ekso Bionics, for example, was invented for workers on Ford’s assembly lines who install overhead components all day long.

Exosuit technology is here now and ready for deployment in countless construction applications. Against the backdrop of the ageing population, their potential to keep tradies on the tools for longer could make them the most important innovation in construction since the nail gun.