Employers still don’t believe in the value of older workers

Rather than encouraging retirement, businesses should use age management initiatives to keep older employees for longer, says Dr Chris Ball

There was a time when we thought of normal retirement age as 65 for men and 60 for women. No matter how good at the job you were, you were expected to hang up your boots. It was nonsense really, because – unlike in some countries – there was never a fixed retirement age in Britain. 60 and 65 were respectively, the ages at which women and men could draw their state pensions – nothing more. 

Now, the idea of a normal retirement age has become passé with the abolition of mandatory retirement. Men and women are retiring between two and three years later, with 1.25 million people now working on past 65. Most other developed countries are following this path. 

In Japan, nearly a quarter of people over 65 continue to work. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, recently announced an ambition to see people in ‘lifetime careers’, with retirement hardly featuring. If this sounds like working till you drop, remember that karoshi – death through overwork – is measured in Japanese government statistics.

In the UK, mandatory retirement ages have been abolished, pension ages are going up and we are all expected to work for longer. Talking to older people about work and retirement, I have found that many are sanguine about remaining working, but unhappy that employers show little willingness to change their jobs and conditions to make this possible.

They complain about the rigidity in some jobs and the difficulty of scaling down their hours, reducing the pace of work, allowing them to partially retire or combine work with caring for elderly parents or grandchildren. They are interested in the idea of active ageing, but believe employers could do more to make it a reality.

Jobs that involve a degree of manual work are a particular example. In recent workshops for CROW (working in Britain, Spain, Poland and Italy on research around active ageing) we have found many workers are torn – happy in principle to continue working but bowing to pressures of declining health or the relentless pace of the job.

In many parts of Europe, governments and employers have been taking this problem more seriously. With birth rates falling, the supply of younger people for some jobs has become a problem. Losing older workers with good knowledge and skills seems ridiculous when their replacements can’t be found. The question employers ask is not ‘How should we get rid of older people?’ but ‘What can we do to keep them?’

The answer may be simple: reward them better, make the job less demanding, more satisfying and more doable and tell the ageing workers that you need and want them to stay. It sounds almost a naïve formula but it seems to work.

This is what the Swedish energy company Vattenfall discovered when it faced a crisis of many valued workers approaching retirement age some years ago. The company embarked on what became known as an ‘age management’ initiative.

A long-established early retirement incentive scheme was withdrawn. Then by reducing workloads, offering new roles in training and knowledge sharing and telling them they were needed, the company set out to convince older workers that they had a future.

A series of workshops were held for all those planning to retire. Different options and incentives were laid out. About one in six workers changed their plans and stayed. Leadership training and exchange of knowledge across the generations went hand in hand with improved working environments, encouragement of healthy living and other initiatives. 

This model has been followed by countless companies across Europe. In the UK, by contrast, people are working longer, in part because they feel under financial pressure to do so. Relatively few employers are introducing changes to encourage older people to stay, though there are some positive examples. Few large UK employers are adopting the insightful joined-up thinking seen in many larger European companies, where task forces and project groups are taking age management approaches to all parts of the organisation.  

If you talk to British HR managers about the ageing workforce you usually find they have concerns about how to encourage them to retire when they cease to be as efficient as they once were. There are honourable exceptions of course, but in the main, UK employers still seem to lack belief in the value of the older worker.

Dr Chris Ball is a researcher at Newcastle University and the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce (CROW). He tweets at @crystal_balls

The ASPIRE research project (Active Ageing through Social Partnership and Industrial Relations in Europe) will be publishing a guide to social dialogue around active ageing in 2019