Longer working lives are a pipe dream if we keep making older employees unhappy

23 Jan 2018 By Dr Chris Ball

Intense, precarious work pushes many people into retirement, or leaves them disengaged. But there is a better way, says Dr Chris Ball

Throughout my childhood, a BBC variety show, Workers’ Playtime, was broadcast from work canteens to boost morale and support national productivity. It began as an attempt to support the war effort – and worked rather well. ‘A happy worker is a better worker’ was the theory. 

Happiness and job satisfaction are important elements in employee engagement. Many studies have shown that older workers are generally more engaged, more committed to their organisations than younger workers and experience higher job satisfaction. 

Like all generalisations, it is full of danger, but in some respects this is valid. One reason is that unhappy older workers will probably take the first opportunity to retire, leaving more engaged colleagues to soldier on: ‘the survival of the happiest’ you could call it.

The ground has been shifting over the past 20 years, however. In the 1980s, factory closures and early pensions provided people with incentives to retire early. Now a mix of financial penalties and incentives supports a government drive to extend working lives – and it is not so easy to get out of an unhappy job with a nice early retirement cushion to flop down on. 

Society is ageing and the government wants people to work longer. Moreover, employers can no longer oblige employees to retire at a given age. Many are working longer because they have to – Britain’s state pension system, the worst in the western world, sees to that.  

With Brexit, older workers will be needed as migrants no longer fill the skills gaps. But some employers worry that older employees will coast downhill to retirement, lacking both job engagement and the motivation to quit. If true, productivity will suffer.

Researchers from Westminster University and the Policy Studies Institute believe the ‘older worker premium’, in positive attitudes and job satisfaction, has indeed been slipping. Analysis of attitude studies stretching back to 1992 shows that their advantages in organisational commitment and job satisfaction have partially eroded compared with younger employees.

Reasons for this include a deterioration in the quality of working life, so that the jobs they once enjoyed are no longer the same. As one 61-year-old man put it: “I used to love my job, but it’s changed now. They have moved the goalposts and are making it harder and harder.” 

Numerous factors emerge to explain the growing discontent of older employees. First, work has become more intensified. The use of information technology to control, monitor and change the ways we work is one factor. Many organisations are in a permanent state of flux. Continuous changes impose new stresses on those responsible for implementing them and create fundamentally different working conditions. Older workers are particularly feeling these changes – for example, with the introduction of performance related pay.

Second, work has become more precarious. Older staff are affected by an increased probability of unemployment or diminished jobs as they approach retirement, including through employers’ use of redundancy to achieve organisational change. With the increase in state pension ages, older workers are competing in a growing sector of part-time, temporary and casual jobs. 

Third, there has been a gradual process of reducing the autonomy offered to employees in the way they do their jobs. This has had wide repercussions and is particularly hard on older, longer-serving employees who would normally expect to draw on their experience and skills where they are experts in highly specific work fields.

So jobs and workplaces feel different to those that older workers entered years ago. Once-loved jobs have sometimes become a nightmare. 

Clearly, if the government’s ambition to add a million more older workers to the labour force is to be met, something will be needed to make work less stressful – and, dare we say, fun? Bringing back Workers’ Playtime may not be the answer. But who knows? It could help…

Dr Chris Ball researches and comments on the older workforce with Newcastle University’s Centre for Research on the Older Workforce, and is part of the team working on the ASPIRE project – Active Ageing through Social Partnership and Industrial Relations Expertise

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