The importance of supporting older workers…

Some changes to our society happen quickly – the iPhone has just celebrated its 11th birthday, YouTube is 12 years old and Instagram is the baby at seven. But some changes are slower to show their impact on our lives and the ageing of our society is one of them.

When asked, just about everyone knows that we live in an ageing society, but few of us think how this will impact on our lives.

The UK has undergone – and is still experiencing – a profound shift in its age structure. Simply put, we are living longer and having fewer children. There are now more people aged over 60 than under 16 in the UK. And, on the whole, we are not only living longer, but also living healthier lives – today’s 60 was yesterday’s 45.

This demographic shift has implications for many aspects of our society and our lives and this includes in the world of work. Most of us are working longer. Estimates are that by 2022, 14.5 million more jobs will be created, but only 7 million younger workers will enter into the jobs market. That 7.5 million gap means employers will have to start looking harder at their workforce as it ages and begin to adapt and change to enable us to continue to work when and if we want to.

The many benefits of working

Many of us see working as a positive choice and something that we want to do. Plus, it seems work is good for us. The Department of Work and Pensions report “Is work good for your health and well-being? An independent review” (2006) stated “There are economic, social and moral arguments that work is the most effective way to improve the well-being of individuals, their families and their communities”.

For most, work keeps us busy, gives us a structure to our week, it helps us feel useful, can enable us to learn new skills and gives us an identity. It also helps us connect with people and socialise and, unless it’s voluntary, gives us an income to do other things and explore interests.

The good news is evidence is emerging that employers are starting to view an ageing workforce as positive, but change in this area is gradual, with many employers slow to shift practice to rise to the challenge.

The missing million

According to Business in the Community’s “Missing Million” report “To address the widening skills gap, tackle age bias in work and enable people to stay in work longer, every UK employer needs to increase the number of workers aged 50-69 in the UK by 12% by 2022.”

Amazingly, this report found that there were a million older people out of work who actually wanted to be in work. And we wonder why a report by Hitachi Capital and the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that most self employed workers will be over 50 within seven years. It seems that 50-64 year olds aren’t retiring, preferring to stay in work but working more autonomously.

What older people want is good-quality paid work and what employers want are committed, skilled, experienced workers. A starting point on this road to positive ageing in our workplace is already in place. Since 2010 it has been illegal in the UK to discriminate against employees, job seekers and trainees because of age. The Equality Act 2010 sets in place the legislation that underpins the changes that have happened and are still needed.

Becoming an age-friendly employer

For employers, the next step is understanding your workforce now and planning for the future. Thinking through how you recruit your staff is critical, as this is often where age bias begins to kick in. What words and images are used in adverts and job packs? Are apprenticeships only open to younger people?

Recruiting is one thing, but retaining existing staff is even more important. How flexible is your workplace practice if someone wants to work fewer hours? Are line managers trained in providing the right support to people of all ages and career stages? What would your response be if a member of your team asked for care leave?

Increasingly, there are examples of good practice from employers starting to embrace the concept of being an ‘age- friendly’ employer. Enabling staff to work remotely and flexibly, accommodating health conditions that often come with older age, such as providing adapted equipment, and encouraging staff of all ages who want to learn and develop new ICT skills.

You can’t get away from the fact that a positive, age-friendly organisational culture is important when supporting older employees. A recent example of this is Sainsbury’s, who rightly received much praise for supporting and continuing to employ a 61 year old woman for five years after her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. The son of the worker openly praised Sainsbury’s for “how the supermarket giant fought to keep her job open and handled her condition with ‘compassion, class and dignity’.”

I’ve been lucky enough to work in the world of older people and ageing for most of my professional life. About 30 years ago now, a colleague said to me “ageing is a women’s issue” and that adage was and remains true. 3.5 million women aged 50 and over are in employment, a 72 per cent rise since 1994. But our experience of being female, getting older and employment is often in the context of lower pay, more part-time work, greater caring responsibilities and long-standing barriers to career progression. Women in particular will benefit from adapted employment practices  that enables them to work flexibly, and more fairly.

Supporting an ageing population to lead fuller, longer working lives is a win-win situation. It makes social, health, economic and psychological good sense. Workplace practice needs to change, not least of which is challenging the inherent ageism that still persists across our society.

But we also need to think personally what we want from being an older employee and how work fits into our plans for our later life and again, like living in an ageing society, that is something that most of us don’t think about or do anything about until it dawns on us that we are nearing retirement age – but that’s a whole other blog!

Hilary Bath

About Hilary Bath

I'm the co-director at Bath and Main Associates where, along with my fellow co-director Simon Main, I work with a range of clients from the voluntary, community, public and private sectors. We're about making a difference to people and organisations by enabling them to do things a little (or a lot) differently, while having some fun doing it. We evaluate organisations, projects and services; we set up and run campaigns; we develop and manage projects, write tenders and funding bids and provide additional capacity when it’s needed. We’re specialists in helping to make change happen.