What do older workers value about work?

Written by
Dan Jones

07 Mar 2017

07 Mar 2017 • by Dan Jones

Over the next 10 years, it’s predicted that for every 2 older people leaving the workforce, only 1 younger person will join. 

We can’t engineer another baby boom, so we need to help people stay in the labour market for longer. Despite equality legislation, the abolition of the default retirement age and some headline grabbing exceptions, there’s much more to do. More people over 50 are in work than ever, but employment rates fall rapidly from 55, with less than half of people still working in the year before they reach state pension age. While some have made a positive choice to retire, at least a million people over 50 have left work involuntarily due to ill health, redundancy or caring responsibilities.

To thrive in this new reality, businesses need to get better not just at recruiting and retaining older workers, but engaging them. 

Centre for Ageing Better set out to identify what people aged 50 and over value about work, and how best to motivate and support them. Our new report, Fulfilling work: what do older workers value about work and why? summarises the most up-to-date, relevant, high quality research evidence on older workers.  

Create a real purpose for your people

The key finding is that older workers want the same things from work as anyone else – a meaningful and interesting role with social interaction, scope to contribute their ideas and experience, and opportunities for learning and progression.
This isn’t surprising – there’s no magical transformation that happens at 55. But the evidence also shows that older workers are less likely to get these things, especially learning and development. Older women in particular are more likely to report being overlooked for promotion or training. 

If employers want to retain their older workers, they need to treat them equitably and fairly. The solutions are primarily about applying good HR practice to all staff, regardless of age – for example: 

•    Training and support for line managers to tackle unconscious bias of all kinds; 
•    Monitoring appraisal data to ensure that all staff are assessed fairly and have equal access to development opportunities. 

Introducing midlife career reviews – triggered at a particular age and/or on request – is one more targeted way of ensuring that managers discuss career aspirations and development plans with older workers. 

The main difference between older and younger workers is that people aged 50 and over are more likely to have caring responsibilities and/or health conditions. Again, the solutions are well known – above all, flexible working arrangements that allow people to balance health, care and work. 

Some older workers feel that their employers don’t take ageing-related health problems seriously. Employers need to normalise flexible working for all staff. Without a transparent process and full and equal access, older workers are more likely to fear the consequences of a request for flexibility. At the extreme, they may continue working in unsuitable conditions, or ‘self-manage’ through frequent sickness absence.

While many older workers value shorter hours or more flexible working patterns, other elements of flexibility are also important, such as the ability to work from home or special leave for carers. Appropriate workplace adaptations and adjustments to job content, environment or delivery can help older workers with health conditions to stay in work and continue to contribute productively. 

Failure to act has a direct cost. People in well paid or highly skilled roles, or with an entrepreneurial mindset, are more likely to leave if they don’t think that their work matters, that their employer supports them, or that their personal circumstances are taken seriously. As well as the loss of skills, experience and institutional memory, recruiting a new member of staff costs £6,000 on average. 

Older workers without the luxury of choice may try to hang on in unfulfilling work, but they are more likely to be disengaged, and may eventually find themselves unable to continue because of health needs or caring responsibilities.

Conversely, older workers who are treated equitably and have access to appropriate support are more engaged and likely to stay with their employer for longer. The evidence shows that older workers often have high levels of expertise, strong communication skills and highly developed judgement and problem-solving. With the population ageing both in and outside the workplace, older workers can offer a distinctive understanding of and rapport with older consumers. 

Acting now to ensure equitable treatment and access to flexible working will pay dividends with the current workforce and into the future.