Skip to main content

According to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, over 30% of the UK workforce is aged 50 and above, and there are over 1.1 million over 65 still in employment. As the State Pension age continues to rise, reaching 67 by 2028, more and more people are likely to decide to keep working, meaning this number is only going to increase. The need for government and employers to understand what this means has never been greater.

Maximising the skills and experience of our ageing workforce is essential. An oft-quoted statistic from the Department for Work and Pensions is that halving the employment gap between 50-to-64 year olds and people in their 40s in 2013 would have added 1% (£18bn) to nominal GDP – this is a clear statement of the gains for the UK, while for employers there are potential benefits in recruitment, skills utilisation and productivity.

There are some employers who clearly ‘get it’, and numbers in this group are increasing. The impetus given to the agenda by Ministers, flagship employers and other stakeholders over the past few years has without doubt enabled significant progress. But we also need a wider debate about how to make workplaces accessible – both physically and psychologically – for older workers.

Age UK has been doing much thinking about what might help older workers stay in productive and enjoyable work, as well as being able to fulfil their potential. Employers are of course crucial in this – there are various factors that they need to consider if they are to get the most out of their 50+ employees. Here we put them into three broad groups.

First, psychological. This refers to the organisational culture and the day-to-day working environment. Achieving an open, trusting relationship between management and other employees, where people can speak openly about their problems and ambitions without fear of recrimination is important. Crucially, this includes eradicating discrimination and the use of stereotypes in decision-making at all levels – restoring the ‘pride’ and eliminating the ‘prejudice’. Ambitious, yes, but something to strive towards nonetheless.

Second, practical. Linked to the cultural aspects, this is how the organisation develops and implements HR policies, trains line-managers, uses technology to aid workplace design, and aligns the skills and experience – as well as the aspirations – of its 50+ employees (and future employees) with its organisational objectives.

Third, personal. At the employee level, this means ensuring that people have ‘good jobs’, which evidence demonstrates is beneficial for health and wellbeing, as well as productivity. Good jobs that allow people to take responsibility, offer decent pay and improve their wellbeing help to facilitate longer working lives and enable employers to benefit from this too. Without this ‘personal touch’ many workers, particularly those in lower skilled roles, will have less desire to keep working and be regarded less favourably by their employer.

The Business Champion for Older Workers, Baroness Altmann (now the Pensions Minister), framed the ‘Fuller Working Lives’ agenda around ‘three Rs’ – Recruit, Retain and Retrain. We fully support this approach, as it is simple for employers to understand and encapsulates the major issues. Combined with the ‘three Ps’ outlined above, employers can create the processes for maximising the skills of older workers that we believe will help them to succeed as demographics change.

Flexible working underpins all of this. Older workers like flexible working for a variety of reasons, for example to meet their caring responsibilities or to manage a health condition.

Age UK has also analysed how flexible working is used among older workers. There are clear barriers emerging – genuine flexibility is too often unavailable at point of recruitment (hence the 26-week qualifying period for the ‘right to request’ should be abolished); rarely offered to lower skilled workers (indicating employers only use it when ‘easy’); and is still often used as a tool for managing people rather than to facilitate improved worklife balance. Access to genuine, worker-friendly flexibility needs to improve, and quickly, if fuller working lives are to become a reality. That is why we’ve suggested all jobs should be ‘flexible by default’ by 2020 – going beyond the right to request, where the employee can assume they can work flexibly unless the employer can justify otherwise.

It won’t be easy for employers and the public to undo ingrained prejudice about the perceptions of later working life and retirement. But a lot more sensibility is essential if the UK is going to thrive with an ageing workforce.

Christopher Brooks is Senior Policy Manager for Consumer and Community at AgeUK. He originally wrote this piece for Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine on the future of work.