Why older workers are not to be written off

Blog by Rachael Saunders, Age at Work Director, Business in the Community

Two very different Guardian articles on ageing this week.  One, implying that the World Economic Forum is calling on us to work until we drop – as if working until 70 was unimaginably dreadful – and another, quoting Sarah Harper the director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, said that we should change our approach to language around ageing. Rather than calling someone in their 60s, 70s or even 80s ‘old’, Harper suggested that we should refer to ‘active adulthood’. The word ‘old’ should be reserved for those who are frail and dependent.

Two very different perspectives, making very clear the conflicted feelings about ageing we have as a nation.  On the one hand, the fact that we are living longer, and many of us are healthy for longer, is an extraordinary gift and opportunity – literally the holy grail. On the other, we yearn for a life we feel entitled to, when we hang up our work boots and chill out with a pipe and slippers, maybe interrupted by an occasional cruise, once we reach 65. 

We are living through a time of extraordinary change.  The WEF projections about working until age 70 are not so dreadful, if you assume many of us will live well past our 100th birthday.  Professor Harper’s comments raise important issues about stereotyping around older people. 

It remains true that from age 50, labour market participation drops off, people are paid less and less, and older people also feel less secure in work.  We need to be able to have a language that enables us to name, and therefore tackle, this, without stigmatising people based on their age.  I use the phrase “older worker”, whilst being very aware that 50 is no age at all – certainly not an age where there could be any rational reason for treating people differently. 

Meanwhile, businesses risk missing out on the wealth of experience and skills older workers have to offer - particularly crucial given we face a 7.5 million skills gap by 2022 without older workers to fill it. So how can employers turn the need for people to work longer into something positive?

Firstly, we would encourage all employers to join Business in the Community’s Age at Work Leadership Team in committing to increase the number of over-50s in employment in the UK by 12% in five years, and publishing the number and percentage of older workers currently in their workforce. This will help to track progress and encourage employers to adapt to and benefit from an older workforce. We have published guidance for employers on how to do this here.

I have written before about the need to move away from the three-stage model of childhood, work and retirement, and instead to look at people as moving through employment in multiple phases. This could happen through providing training and advice to equip employees to manage significant life changes – including retirement – as well as supporting employees to manage their own careers through tailored training and development opportunities, introducing mid-life career reviews or developing new models of success which allow for periods of plateau and career breaks.

Employers could also focus on attracting the one million 50- to 64-year olds who are out of work and want to return, such as by offering apprenticeships to older workers, and by helping them to adapt to changing work environments by offering training to fill skills gaps. Our report ‘Age in the Workplace: Retain, Retrain, Recruit’ sets out further steps that businesses can take to support their employees at every stage of their lives.

It is estimated that children born in 2007 have a 50% chance of living to 103. We need to start catching up.