Employers should no longer see 65 as ‘old’, says official report

ONS data shows people are living longer and healthier lives – but experts say age discrimination is still widespread

Viewing 65 as the marker for old age is an outdated notion, a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said, as new data suggests the health of a 70-year-old today is comparable to that of someone five years their junior a decade ago.

The report has renewed calls from experts for employers to reconsider their attitudes towards older workers and those who choose to work beyond the traditional retirement age.

The analysis of health data and life expectancy by the ONS found that men in England and Wales aged 70 in 2017 had the same remaining life expectancy – 15 years – as a 65-year-old did in 1997. Similarly, women aged 70 had the same remaining life expectancy as a 65-year-old in 1981.

The report also found that men and women were now comparably healthier in their older age. In 1981, 45 per cent of people aged 65 to 85 had poor general health, compared to 39 per cent today.

Levels of poor health for women aged 70 in 2017 were the same as those aged 60 in 1981, while men the same age had comparable health to those who were 65 in 1997. While highlighting the limitations of its own analysis, the report said the age of 70 now “appears to be the new 65 (or even younger) in terms of health”.

Steve Webb, director of policy at Royal London, said the report showed attitudes towards old age needed to change. “For the last century, age 65 has been associated with retirement, especially for men. But the world has moved on,” he said.

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Webb added that today’s 65-year-olds were less likely to have smoked or worked in demanding manual jobs and more likely to have benefited from modern medicine. “This means that we need to change our attitudes to older workers, recognising they are capable of working for longer and have a valuable contribution to make.”

According to a recent report by the CIPD, the proportion of over-50s in the workforce increased from 21 per cent to 32 per cent between 1992 and 2019. 

Jonathan Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, said the consequences of this were being felt in the labour market. He said that while 65 was usually seen as a mark of old age, “this signal has been weakened, particularly as compulsory retirement at 65 was abolished in 2011”.

Boys added: “While an ageing population brings challenges, we shouldn’t forget that it’s good news: we are living healthier for longer.”

The ONS predicted that, by 2050, those over the age of 65 will make up almost a quarter of the population, while the number of people aged 85 and over is growing faster than any other age group. 

However, Jack Jones, policy officer at the TUC, warned against “talking about a broad-brush trend, because it ignores the different experiences different people have”. 

Jones added that age discrimination was “still widespread”, calling on government to do more to enforce existing legislation – especially because many older workers faced ‘double discrimination’. “For example, the gender pay gap tends to be the highest for older women,” he said.

Flexible working was also important for older people with caring responsibilities, Jones added, calling for more rights beyond the existing right to request flexible working. Employers should also offer ‘mid-life career reviews’, especially for manual workers over the age of 65, who may need to retrain for a different role.