A safer conversation: an ageing workforce

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A group of experts discuss an ageing workforce in Britain.

What are the most evident effects of the repeal of the default retirement age in 2011

Kathleen: The repeal of the default retirement age was designed to help employers and employees adapt to the economic and social trends that are transforming the workforce and the labour market; it’s quite evident that people need to work longer to fund their retirement. Since the late 90s, the average time spent in retirement has increased from 20 years to 22 years for a male and from 25 to 26 years for a female and, therefore, if people are living longer, they need to be able to pay into some kind of pension pot for that. When you look at research you will find that 54% of workers over the age of 55 are planning to work beyond retirement age, and in every study that I’ve been involved with, 5% of the workforce are over 65 years of age as well.

Alan: I think the default retirement age was a bit of a cop out in a way since the government’s original intentions didn’t include the concept, which was introduced by the Department for Business quite late in the day, to help employers who were uncertain about an immediate removal of their ability to terminate employment based on retirement. Its legality was almost immediately challenged by AgeUK in a long-running action and that challenge was ultimately successful.

The most obvious effect this had is that it’s given employees the absolute choice as to when to leave employment, and that’s – I think in terms of social justice – absolutely an enviable thing. What it has done is, probably, helped to increase the trend of growth in employment of those over 65; the trend of increase was there well before the Age Regulations came into effect in 2006, but has accelerated.

We’ve now got something like 1.1m people over the age of 65 employed. This number includes people who are self employed and people who are working part time as well as working full time, so the headline figure perhaps doesn’t show the whole truth about what’s happening.

Chris: The default retirement age legislation has undoubtedly been helpful to people who want to have the choice to continue to work longer. I think there is evidence that it may have encouraged some employers to be more wary about employing older workers, because they may think they could have the person for quite a long time if the employee chooses not to retire. Therefore it seems that older job seekers – as opposed to older workers – are facing more problems. Clearly, we don’t want to go back to the previous state of affairs where employees could be obliged to retire, but it would seem that more work is necessary to show employers how working beyond what used to be the ‘taken-for-granted retirement age’, is not a problem and can be a tremendous asset to their organisations.

The decision to stay in work until later in life can be based on economic needs, even if the person does not necessarily feel healthy or motivated. What impact can this have on the employee and the employer, who may have to deal with an unhappy, unmotivated employee

Alan: It’s necessary to drill deep down to see what’s happening. Currently we’ve got the last throws of the generation moving into retirement who are in adequate or well-funded pension arrangements, so we’re not going to see the full impact of this until maybe five, 10 years out, when we get a much bigger cohort of people retiring who are on defined-contribution pensions rather than defined-benefit pension.

The other thing that’s important is to look at the sort of people who are working post-65, and there’s a big gender divide: men who stay on tend to be in higher-skilled occupations, professional occupations, whereas women who stay on tend to be in lower unskilled employment, and I think that’s really important. I think men who stay on are likely to have good feelings about work, whereas there will be a proportion of women who are forced to continue working, either because their partner has stopped working or because they need income to make up for short falls in pension, or to provide a supplementary income where they’ve got, for example, caring responsibilities.

Kathleen: I would like to answer that question in terms of health. Health can be a challenge and studies show that the older you become, the more likely you are to develop a chronic or a long-term illness, a long-term condition, and for example, by the age of 55 or 60 a person actually could have four long-term conditions, for example, high blood pressure, or hypertension, coronary heart disease, diabetes, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There are a range of diseases that people can have, and that’s obviously going to affect their motivation, but there are many older people who remain engaged in the workplace, they’re very reliable and they’re hard working, and there is no evidence to suggest that older workers are less productive than younger workers.

The findings of a current study I’m involved with show that small and medium enterprises (SME) want middle-aged workers; they value the skill and the ability of the older worker and there is an interest in adjusting working hours and in mentoring, and employees with more choices tend to stay longer. Another aspect of motivation is that some younger managers find it difficult to manage employees older than themselves, and at times performance appraisals can lack positive feedback and the older individual can feel very demotivated. Perhaps the solution to this is to have a greater introduction of flexible working policies.

Chris: There really is an enormous range of competency, performance, individual engagement with the job and health among people, including people in the older age cohorts, so it is actually very difficult to make sweeping generalisations in this way. However, firstly, we shouldn’t imagine that just because someone is older they are riddled with disease or limiting conditions. This is just plain barmy. Plenty of older people are really fit.

I know people who are in their 60s and 70s who can out-run others in their 30s and 40s. As a biker and runner myself, I can beat quite a few, not very fit people who are in their 20s and 30s – it shouldn’t be surprising if I am fit and they are not. But the point is that we should judge people on their attributes not their chronological ages.

Secondly, granted that being older makes it more likely that you will get something nasty, we should remind ourselves of the phenomenon of the “fit survivor”. The older person who is still with us, working or seeking a new job in his or her 60s or later, may be of the fit survivors who doesn’t have the nastiest conditions. It is equally likely that older workers have learned to cope with whatever it is they have. The ability to function is the thing. People of all abilities can function. I learned that when I used to take my daughter – who has cerebral palsy – to the Peto Institute in Hungary as a young child. The point they made there was that people with even very severe disabilities can learn to function and live a relatively normal life. So in the workplace, typically dealing with people with far less disabling conditions, the worker himself or herself can learn to function. The workplace and the work can very often be adapted in some way to make it possible for a person with a limiting condition or illness, to remain as a valuable and productive employee.

Of course motivation is a very important point. Rewarding people, challenging them, giving them opportunities to learn, grow and develop, as well as to make them feel that the job is worthwhile by giving positive feedback, shaping a workplace to give scope to influence and decide on things related to the job are all important in getting people motivated.

Alan: The right to request flexible working has just been extended to any employee who meets the qualifying condition, and I think there will be a big uptake in that, a lot of requests from older workers, probably people over 50 rather than necessarily people over 65. There’ll be an adjustment to the possibility of later retirement helped by the flexible working arrangements in one way or another.

In the June edition of Safety Management, Zofia Bajorek, from the Work Foundation discussed the challenge employers might face if too many employees request flexible working hours

Alan: I think that’s right, an employer doesn’t have to accept a request, but it has to have a consistent framework for considering a request. The reasons why a request can be turned down remain the same: business efficiency, cost, all those sort of things, but with the right to request being open to all, the employers have also got to be careful that in applying the policy they’re not discriminating a particular group, age or gender group. Employers  will need to be neutral in the way in which they’re applying the policy, so it’s going to be a challenge.

Some researchers and practitioners consider that the relationship between age and a decline in productivity is a stereotype based in old research. However, physical deterioration, memory loss, and reduction in the speed of information processing are a reality faced by older people. Can everything be accommodated with simple adjustments, such as equipment or flexible work

Kathleen: There little evidence that from the age of 65 workers are more likely to lose cognitive ability. Certainly I would agree that physical abilities can be lost and, in actual fact, some people who have being doing very heavy, manual labour all their lives starting at the age of about 16 have their bodies worn out by the age of 40 or 45, but the mind is still very active.

I would say that from an employer’s perspective, continued training is essential to ensure that older workers can perform and adjust to the new ways of working as they come in. Training, monitoring of training and gradual changes in the workplace – not all new systems brought in at one time, but phase the changes – are all essential when working with the older, mature workers.

Alan: I would say that I agree with Kathleen that in terms of a normal working life, even one going some way beyond 65, there’s really very little evidence to suggest there’s a decline, certainly in terms of cognitive skills and ability, or a decline that’s going to affect productivity in a normal day-to-day working environment. Physical ability is a bit different, but a lot of people – people in heavy manual occupations – will actually have exited the labour force in their 50s or even earlier, rather than working into later life; so most of the evidence would suggest there’s as much difference in both cognitive and physical ability within a particular age group as there is with increasing age.

There’s a literature review from HSE, which is a good source of data on it and there’s a very good summary paper that Chris Brooks of Age UK produced a couple of months ago, which I think for the most part dispels the myth about productivity and age.

Chris: It’s not really a question of views; it’s more a question of what’s the evidence. The overwhelming consensus is that other than in jobs where there is a very large component of physical activity and there’s a need for quite considerable speed in which the job is done, there isn’t really any significant correlation between age and any noticeable decline in productivity. You can imagine that there could be situations where people are doing very hard, strenuous work – they need to do it quickly and so forth – where being older, being in your 50s or 60s could begin to be something of a problem. But you shouldn’t underestimate the physical fitness of people anyway and people who are going to continue in quite strenuous manual jobs into later middle age, shall we say, can still be extremely physically fit.

I wouldn’t necessarily single myself out as an example or anything like that, but as a veteran athlete (I’ll be moving up to the over 70s age category this year) I know plenty of people who are really pretty good physically,  athletically and so on in their 60s. It seems to me that this is something that shouldn’t influence employers in their decisions; what they should really take notice of is what we call ‘work ability’ or if you like ‘working capacity’. So, look at work ability not age, that’s a much more sensible way of looking at the impact of age on the ability of people to get the job done, or indeed to be productive.

We don’t necessarily want to go into the details of how you measure work ability now, but suffice to say that there are people of quite advanced years who’ve got excellent work ability, and that is really a measure of their resources and the demands of the job. If there is a fit between the demands of the job and the resources of the individual in terms of both their physical and mental capacities, their learning, their knowledge, and so many other things as well, then there shouldn’t really be a problem as far as productivity is concerned.

The work landscape has changed so dramatically that it is almost impossible to find a job in which technological skills are not essential and those skills rank very high in job description/salary; it is challenging even for younger employees. How can the older workers integrate and keep up the pace

Alan: I think it is an issue, but I think it’s an issue much less for people who are in work than people who are out of work. Given that the prospects of unemployment, in particular long-term unemployment, increase pretty dramatically with age, I think the people who are going to struggle to keep pace are those people who are trying to re-enter the labour market after the age of 50; if you’re in employment, you’re likely to be able to keep pace, in my view, in most jobs.

Chris: I agree with part of that; when people are in a specific job, doing the job certainly on a daily basis, they tend to be very good at that particular job. If there is any change that takes place in their particular job, they tend to receive quite specific training, whether it’s the software programme or whether it’s something else, some other form of organisational or product change or whatever it might be. The problem is, however, that much of the training that people have is so narrow and specific, and also that when people are employed in a particular job in a particular company and don’t get the opportunities to advance, to broaden their experience in different sorts of roles and so on, their employability is likely to suffer.

Employers ought really to have quite a strong sense of their needs on one hand but also values on the other hand and recognise that it is a good idea to prepare workers for a broader range of jobs, for skills that they might need and develop their learning and human resources more broadly than simply the very narrow aspect of the job they happen to be doing. If employers can do that, then that helps enormously. They can help by encouraging workers individually; it really does raise the important issue of learning, and the idea of a learning organisation, of lifelong learning, vocational education and training, all of those sorts of things. It also raises important issues about the kind of learning, the kind of vocational education and the recognition of qualifications.

It is really important to take on board and to reflect in the whole range of existing employment practices, not only in the organisation but also those provided for outside the organisation. To some extent, the worker themselves should accept a measure of responsibility for that, it’s very important I’d say. What will happen to people who are left outside, when the job changes, if they haven’t got that kind of lateral, more versatile form of employability? By definition, they are going to find it very difficult to be employed.

Kathleen: I want to echo what Chris and Alan have said. Many people of all ages have a technological component to their job, and companies usually introduce the technological changes fairly gradually, and there will be training in place. Some employers work locally, go to colleges of further education to look at what courses are available and depending on what is required as part of the job and what’s required for the company, but it might be the case that some of the mature workers want to do it but are not able to do that, and therefore, the challenge for the employer is to find a route where the individual can learn. That can be very time consuming and expensive, which is really the issue for the employer if they want to keep the mature worker on.

Do we need more research and resources to better understand how to manage an older workforce?

Kathleen: Now I’m wearing a research hat. The researchers will always say that more research is needed, bu there has to come a time when existing research is put into practice.

Over the last couple of years the Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives has been working with various organisations at national and European levels. With the European Network of Work and Health we have produced a document titled Promoting healthy work for workers with chronic illness: a guide to good practice. We’ve also produced two documents in partnership with CIPD titled Manager support for return to work following long-term sickness absence and Managing a healthy ageing workforce: a national business imperative. Currently we’re working on another document in partnership with CIPD called Harnessing the benefits of age diversity in SMEs.

In June 2014 the Department for Work and Pensions issued a three- month action plan called Fuller Working Lives: a framework for action, which is an action plan for extending working lives. So, there is a lot there; I think maybe we have to try to put that into practice. Rather than swamp employers with research, we really have to work on developing action plans and guideline, and highlighting these issues to employees as well.

Chris: Kathleen is right; there’s probably never going to be a time when you will say you don’t need any more research. We do have quite a lot of research about the causes of ill health. As the society ages, as our life expectancy increases, we aren’t necessarily increasing our healthy life expectancy in the same ratio. We know that we probably have an increasingly unequal country actually in relation to health, much the same as we are in relation to so many other things. We’ve got issues around alcohol and obesity and all these sorts of things, which are lifestyle diseases, as well as work-related illnesses and conditions that are brought about as a result of hazards such as physical postures at work.

Over so many years we have learnt about exposures to harmful substances, slips, trips, falls and all those sort of things. We do know a lot about all of this, it really is a question of policies and practices and putting these things into action.

I would agree that a lot of the solution has got to come from the employee himself or herself. When we talk about improving health and wellbeing, improving employability, none of them can be done by management working on employees. They have to be part of a package which makes people totally engaged with it to make a big difference.

There are some very important policy areas that still need to be explored; we know quite a lot about ill health but we aren’t necessarily looking at the way the work is organised in order to be more sensible about the way people are literally expended. Stress is a huge problem, it’s a big cause of people quitting the workforce early– you can’t really put these things in isolation.

There is also the Health at Work Service document unveiled by the government. I’m worried, however, that a lot of this might actually fall into the category of a kind of sticking plaster approach. Most of the emphasis of the Health at Work Service seems to be about getting long-term sick people back to work, without necessarily looking at the causes of ill health in the first place. I don’t decry the value of helping people get back to work quicker but there has to be a role for looking at the causes of ill health and prevention of further episodes. This is the missing element in most occupational health services.

We’ve got to look at organisations and the causes of ill health and see if there’s a need for research related to the specific organisation or the specific set up that is needed, rather than the generalised stuff, so that we have a better understanding of what is causing ill health.

We should be talking about prevention rather than getting people back to work, patching them up and so forth. That said, obviously, anything which makes a good contribution to people coping with mental ill health and so forth helps us to learn better how to do that, and the kind of policies that employers can follow.

There are some very good examples, but we mustn’t be lulled into a sense of false security by thinking that because we’ve got a partial solution, because we’ve got a sticking plaster, because we can patch somebody up and send them back, we can just rest on our laurels. We can’t do that; we’ve got to think in terms of the best approaches to occupational health.

If you look at continental Europe you can see that, actually, the delivery of the whole occupational service takes on board very much more, on an ongoing basis, on an almost holistic basis – the environment, the diet people have, the way they spend their lives, their hobbies. They are all linked together and can have a big impact on their work, so you need to get into the minds of people and into organisations; you need to take that analytical, preventative approach and work on awareness campaigns. We need to get into people’s minds and influence them if we’re to have an impact on that, otherwise it doesn’t matter how much more research we do.

Alan: I think where we do need continued research is looking at the work, for example, of the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing. I think it is really important that we continue to try and understand particular differences in the socio-economic gradient on health, how the lowest earning groups fare in terms of their survival in the labour market, compared to high earning groups. I think we’ve got enough in terms of research evidence on physical ability, cognitive abilities and so on. Continued fundamental research is important as well as more detailed studies in the workplace. I think Fuller Working Lives, published by the government, is very useful as both Kathleen and Chris have said. What’s necessary is to really get research translated into frameworks and guidance that employers and others can usefully follow.

Chris: There’s a lot more that can be done, we’re clearly not in the same situation we were some years ago, where there were some pretty nasty industries causing a huge number of people to suffer, but there’s still some of them about. Obviously, accidents and industrial injuries are still there, there are some offending industries, sources of considerable problems, for example building and construction, that even though they may have taken steps forward accidents still happen and people die. There’s still plenty more to do really. I think engagement with employees is vital.

We have to have a good understanding of the way that the modern career and work story pans out as far as individuals are concerned; people cannot expect to stay in the same job, doing the same occupation the whole of their lives, so it’s increasingly important that people are both willing and able to move, and the state has an important role in helping them to invest in their own versatility.

There is big issue in terms of the labour market and the way it is functioning. Discrimination still exists but there are also also hidden barriers that are far more noticeable at the point when one is sticking to the job, compared with remaining in a job. For someone who is looking for a new job or is compelled to quit their existing job and then have the prospect of looking for a new one, life becomes very difficult.

A lot of that is actually to do with the fact that they are badly prepared in the first place, they haven’t invested necessarily and continuously in their own plan B. Training is vital; we still have many millions of people who have no training beyond the basics they need to do the job and don’t continue to take learning and training seriously throughout their working lives.



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