Let’s hear some good news about longer working lives

Last week I was a panellist at an event hosted by the International Longevity Centre UK  to introduce the older workers’ employment champion, Ros Altmann. This is a new role whose creation was announced recently in the government policy document ‘Fuller Working Lives: A Framework for Action’.

The background to this activity is population ageing. As life expectancy increases and health in later life improves, both the opportunity to work for longer and the economic necessity of extending working lives increase.

Employment rates among the over 50s have been increasing since the early 1990s (see chart below) – a turnaround after an earlier period when they were becoming increasingly excluded from the labour market. Indeed, employment rates for the over 50s were hardly affected by the last recession and, in 2013, the number of people aged 65 and over in employment reached 1 million for the first time.

Nevertheless, other countries have seen similar, or greater, improvements in employment rates for the over 50s.  The UK employment rate for 55-64 years olds was just above the OECD average in 2012 and a number of countries with varied labour market systems have delivered higher employment rates for this age group (see chart below).

Employees are aware of population ageing and its implications.  A pan-European survey conducted for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in late 2012 found that 68% of UK employees thought it very likely or fairly likely that there would be more employees aged over 60 at their workplace by 2020 – the second highest proportion in the EU (just behind Cyprus).

According to the CIPD Employee Outlook survey for winter 2013/14, the mean age at which current employees expect to retire is 66 years of age. Higher proportions of those in the youngest age groups expect to continue working into their seventies (see chart below).

It is easy to see an ageing population as a problem – and dealing with it as a challenge. Now, to an extent, the use of this rhetoric can be justified.  Few OECD governments would have felt the need to increase the state pension age and/or reduce the generosity of retirement benefits without the affordability pressures that an ageing population creates.  A recent report on the future of work released by the UK Commission on Employment and Skills raised the prospect of the “4G workplace” – one where managers will be responsible for supervising people old enough to be their grandparents.

The debate about the default retirement age and its abolition exposed concern from some employers about their ability to plan ahead when there is no certainty on when people stop working. Nevertheless, there are also reasons why we should look at longer working lives as an opportunity - one that promises both economic and social benefits.

Many employees recognise the potential benefits of remaining connected to the labour market up to and beyond the state pension age.  When asked to identify benefits from extending their working life, 70% of employees in the winter 2013/14 CIPD Employee Outlook survey were able to identify at least one benefit. The most common benefit was economic independence (identified by 45% of employees) but a range of beneficial impacts on well-being such as stimulation (36%), social interaction (34%) and improved personal well-being (26%) were commonly mentioned.

The implication is that many employees are likely to welcome increased opportunities to remain in work.  However, many ‘retired’ people face other calls on their time such as helping to care for others and/or volunteer. The extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees may prove to be of great value for both older workers and the organisations that employ them. It provides a signal that flexible working should be an option for all employees – as well as concentrating the minds of both employers and employees on how flexible working can be made to work to mutual advantage.

CIPD research has shown that the flexibility implicit in zero hours contracts can, properly managed, provide benefits for both employers and employees.  The data also suggest that this form of working might be particularly valuable for some older workers.  Among the zero hours workers surveyed in the autumn 2013 CIPD Employee Outlook survey, 47% said they were very satisfied or satisfied with having no minimum contracted number of hours, but the proportion was highest (61%) for those aged 55 and over.  Within the 55 and over age group, 59% of employees said they were very satisfied or satisfied with their jobs, but this proportion increased to 74% for zero hours workers.

Employers and employees also recognise that organisations can benefit from a more age-diverse workforce.  A recent CIPD report on managing an age-diverse workforce found that just 7% of employees thought there were no benefits from working with colleagues of different ages.  The most commonly cited benefits were having different perspectives (mentioned by 72% of employees) and knowledge sharing (66%). Knowledge sharing was also identified as the most important benefit by 55% of HR professionals faced with a similar question and just 4% thought there were no particular benefits.

The attitudes of employees as well as employers are important because negative stereotypes can be a barrier to employment and, through the effect they have on colleagues’ behaviour, they can reduce the productivity and well-being of those affected by them. Negative stereotyping affects both young and older workers. Examples might include assumptions that older workers lack energy or are slow to pick up new skills or that younger workers will not listen, and are disrespectful to, their older colleagues.

The EU-OSHA opinion poll provides some evidence on perceptions of older workers. Half the UK respondents thought that older workers were less able to adapt to changes and a quarter thought they were more likely to suffer from stress but much smaller proportions thought they were less productive, more likely to take time off sick or be an increased accident risk (see chart below).

However, while negative stereotyping does exist in the UK, the data suggest that its prevalence is among the lowest in Europe and well below the European average (see chart below).

Surveys suggest that negative stereotypes of older workers are more common held by young employees.  However, they are also less commonly held by employees in workplaces where there is a broad age mix of employees than in workplaces where the workforce is predominantly young or workplaces where few people aged over 50 are present.  A lot of negative stereotyping may simply be due to a lack of experience of working with people of different ages.  It is therefore quite possible that negative stereotyping will diminish as the average age of the workforce increases and more workplaces include significant proportions of older workers.

Population ageing is a racing certainty.  Adaptation creates challenges for individuals, organisations, governments and society.  But the evidence suggests that the need to extend working lives might best be approached with guarded optimism.

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  • Most of us will have to work as the pension goal posts have shifted & we have no choice. There is a very disgruntled set of 50-somethings coming up. No-one lies on their death-bed saying I wish I'd gone to work more. Thanks to Government & the kick in the teeth that my generation have recieved most of us will probably die at our desks!

  • Most of us will have to work as the pension goal posts have shifted & we have no choice. There is a very disgruntled set of 50-somethings coming up. No-one lies on their death-bed saying I wish I'd gone to work more. Thanks to Government & the kick in the teeth that my generation have recieved most of us will probably die at our desks!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, the government and capitalists have achieved their aim of returning us to the 19th century. Insecure jobs, bad health care, jobs not paying a living wage and the wealthy few living on a different planet to the majority.