‘Do Not Go Gentle’
This week’s British Society of Gerontology Conference at Swansea was entitled ‘Do Not Go Gentle’, a sentiment absolutely encapsulated by the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) women who also this week took such exception, quite righty, to the advice of Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman MP that women who had been caught out by changes to SPA should start an apprenticeship (report here).
For WASPI, the complaint is that they have not been given equal time to men to make adjustments to compensate for the pension reforms – which they support. They recognise that reform is needed, but they have been caught out in the process.
In the longer term, we will all have to get used to a delayed retirement – and most certainly from an idea of early retirement at 50, popularised in the 1970s by a government seeking to offset youth unemployment. If a quarter of people currently in their 50s could live to be 100, retirement at 50, or 60 or probably at 65, just isn’t practical any more – unless you really can afford it (see here).
But the issue is complex – there are many factors affecting whether people can comfortably continue their careers, or work at all, in older age. And the nature of that work – how it is structured and rewarded – is of vital importance. Despite suggestions that the gig economy may be the solution to the problem, older workers need good quality, flexible, decently paid work, which suits their personal circumstances, just as much as the next person.
So in an attempt to understand some of this complexity, here is a round-up of some of the key issues affecting when we should retire.
Pensions & Savings
The biggest driver for working longer is the need to boost pensions and savings, together with the impact of changes to State Pension Age. Working longer is seen as the solution to poverty in retirement. This view has encouraged the changes in age of SPA, and auto-enrolment puts more people on a pension scheme. Current government estimates suggest that 12 million working age people could face inadequate retirement incomes (see here).
Getting a job however is the problem, especially for people who have already exited the workforce but would like to return. The new threat is from employers’ requirements for ‘digital natives’ – widely seen as new code for young, or at least not old. But evidence suggests that older workers are far from incapable with IT, and that companies employing them do not have lower IT-enabled productivity (see here.)
Perhaps the biggest question is whether all older workers are physically able to work longer. Around 1 million people aged 50-64 who are not in work and not looking for work (those termed economically inactive) have health or disability issues (detail here). Work may not be out of the question for all of them, but any work they do will need to fit with their personal circumstances. Extended working lives for this group is that much more complex. Research published this week supported the view that early retirement supports well-being of those with poor health (report here).
Health & Wellbeing
A broader issue of health and well-being for all employees also needs to be considered. This week at the British Society of Gerontology Conference it was reported that having to work after State Pension Age due to financial necessity is associated with a lower quality of life (see here). The impact of longer working on well-being will need to be considered carefully, and negative results offset by the structure of work.
What will really make a difference to extending working lives will be good job design – such as providing for ‘pretirement’, where employees can ramp down their work ahead of retirement itself. Good part-time roles, flexible work and options for benefits such as carers leave will be critical here, as well as ergonomic design to reflect health and disability issues (see here).
Back to Work Support
For those that have already exited the workplace and want to return, effective back to work support will also be essential to support extended working lives. This may be needed by people who have retired too early, but is also important for those taking later career breaks to care for family members. Returner programmes are taking off with a number of large employers, coordinated by groups such as Women Returners (see here), and a new report shows they are spreading to smaller companies too (see here).
The other side of the coin is that older workers are a resource we can ill-afford to lose from the workforce (see here). As well as the resources of skill and experience they bring, there is good evidence that the over 50s have high levels of productivity (see here). Add to this the impact of the ageing population, and Brexit, on future labour supplies and the importance of the older employee rises further. Business is beginning to catch on at last, with initiatives such as that led by Business in the Community (see here).
A Throw-Away Culture?
So the challenge is to not throw away the resource of older employees, but instead to use and support our older workers as we need them now more than ever. This applies equally to supporting them to stay in jobs they already hold, bringing them back into work, and if bringing them back, taking them into good jobs which draw on their extensive skills and experience.
For those wanting a change of career, an apprenticeship may not be inappropriate. But even here, it should seek to draw on transferable skills and experience.
If instead we turn extending working lives into a game of snakes and ladders, and send older workers sliding down the snake just at the end of the game – taking them right back to the beginning – we are adding labour markets to our expanding throw-away culture. And what a waste that would be.