Recently, Dr Ros Altmann CBE, the government-appointed Business Champion for Older Workers, released her recommendations for improving the working lives of over-50s. The crux of her report is that older people clearly want to extend their working life, with clear economic benefits for employers and the public purse; Altmann says that extending working life by an extra three years could add 3.25% to GDP by 2033.
The contribution of older workers to the British economy is undeniable and, as Altmann notes, their presence in the workplace will benefit younger workers through mentoring, training and development.
However, we must ensure that these extended working lives are healthy, sustainable and mutually beneficial to both employees and employers. This means providing jobs that are enriching and flexible, in which older workers can make best use of the experience they have built up over their careers. Good work is beneficial for health, but too many older workers are in jobs that are damaging to both physical and mental wellbeing.
While some positions can be redesigned for an ageing workforce, many older workers see only two routes out of ‘bad’ work: early retirement or a change of career. Early retirement routes are rapidly evaporating, and changing careers can be difficult. As Altmann notes, ageism is still prevalent in the workplace.
Usually, such discrimination isn’t intentional, but may play out in assumptions employers have, such as believing that an older job seeker wouldn’t fit in with a young team. Such misconceptions lead not only to unemployment, but also underemployment as older people are pushed into jobs that don’t make good use of their extensive abilities. Given the chronic skills shortage the UK faces, this is both a personal and national tragedy.
If working lives are to be extended, career pathways must be improved. Without support in transitioning to sustainable work, older people in bad jobs will simply carry on for as long as they can, and many will be pushed out of work (and often into poverty) by poor health.
Many employers actually need older workers. Small businesses, for example, need employees who can be ‘all-rounders’, and job seekers who are rich in experience are also likely to be multi-skilled. The problem that small business leaders have is that they simply don’t know where to find the experienced job seekers they want.
Improving the marketplace for older job seekers is the responsibility of everyone – government, businesses, charities and unions. This is already being done to great effect in, for example, the NHS Working Longer Review Group. In response to rising pension ages, employers and unions are reviewing career pathways for all jobs in the health service so that staff in physically demanding jobs have choices in their later careers.
Ageing workers are not a problem, but an opportunity. Making better use of their experience and skills will benefit not just the economy and businesses, but our society as a whole. We must work together to make career paths as healthy, rewarding and fulfilling as possible, for as long as possible.
Engaging with older employees
1. Talk to your older workers about their career plans and expectations. Mutually beneficial work arrangements surface
only when there is dialogue between older employees and their managers.
2. Ensure everyone understands that the business values workers of all ages and wants to see everyone thrive. The best age diversity policies in the world simply won’t work if line managers and employees aren’t aware of them or don’t believe they have support from senior leaders.
3. Don’t make assumptions about what people of different ages can do at work. Many baby boomers thrive in creative environments while many Millennials want stability and structure. Don’t fall into the trap of pigeon-holing people based on their birth date.
4. Offer development opportunities universally as much as possible. Older workers are more likely to take up training opportunities – and less likely to see offers of training as a stigma – if everyone is taking part.
5. Consider how to retain the skills and experience of your older employees through mentoring and knowledge management so that in-house knowledge doesn’t walk straight out of the door as soon as an employee hits retirement age.
Dr Matt Flynn, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, Newcastle University Business School
Dr Flynn has written reports for the NHS, TUC and BIS Foresight Future project on the implications of an ageing workforce. A guide to SMEs on employing older workers, which he has authored and is entitled Managing Healthy Ageing Workforces, will be published later this year. www.ncl.ac.uk