Supporting an ageing workforce
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Why more employers should be looking ahead to an ageing workforce

It’s been pretty popular lately to examine the effect millennials have on the workplace: their ideas, needs and abilities; their demand for agility, technology and freedom from the 9-5. What much of the talk about age in the workplace tends to conveniently ignore, however, is an increasingly significant portion of the working population: the over 50s.

A social revolution at work

Declining pensions, rising state pension age and costs of living, and an ageing population mean that people are working longer than ever. By 2022, a neat 35% of the UK workforce will be over 50, according to the Office for National Statistics. And this trend of working for longer extends right to the upper edges of working age. It’s five years since the mandatory retirement age was abolished and, according to figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions, more than 1.1 million people aged 65 and over were in work last year. That’s more than double the amount who worked in 2001, and that number is going to keep rising. Up till now, we’ve tended to think of retirement as age- rather than attitude-related; we might need to shift our thinking.

A ‘social revolution’ is how former pensions minister Baroness Altmann refers to the increasing numbers of 50+ employees staying in work. Believing we can keep relying on an endless stream of young workers is staking our business future on marshy ground. As older employees continue to make up an increasingly significant proportion of the workforce, successfully managing an ageing workforce is only going to become more important.

You can’t buy experience

Being over 50 and under-valued was the theme of a My Family Care event earlier this year which focused on the issues older employees – and their employers – are facing. What all the speakers emphasised was that supporting an ageing workforce has a hard business edge. Lower recruitment and training costs because more staff are retained as they age; mature starters who tend to stay in roles longer than more transient younger staff; and older workers mentoring younger ones were just some of the benefits mentioned.

The well-documented business benefits of diversity and inclusion extend to age-diverse teams. Differing life and work experiences – and the cognitive diversity these bring – mean wider ranges of understanding and solutions to problems, and there’s also the increased likelihood of work valued for meaning and identity.

An increasing number of employers and managers are beginning to recognise both the challenges of an ageing population and the benefits of employing older workers. But sadly these are still in a minority. Earlier this summer the CIPD found that, although the UK’s policy framework for supporting older workers is relatively well-developed, there is a crucial need to translate this into action within organisations. Rigidity of thought around what a productive employee looks like, age discrimination and unconscious bias remain widespread problems in the UK labour market. And the way that workplaces, work and jobs are designed also needs a rethink. Below are some ways you can begin to adapt policy and practice in your organisation.

Ten ways to adapt to an ageing workforce:

  1. Identifying the tipping point
    What is the one thing that makes it impossible for older people in your organisation to carry on working? Is it rigidity around job structure or schedule? Is there a lack of support for issues specific to them? While the final straw might be different for lots of people, there are likely to be common themes across your workforce. Identifying this tipping point will mean you can start to make serious inroads into keeping employees longer.
  2. Building in flexibility
    Building flexibility into job design, training and management styles should be a priority for any organisations looking to break the cycle of losing older workers. Planning for phased retirement could also help you retain older employees who have valuable knowledge, networks and experience.
  3. Training for age-diversity
    We say it time and again, but line managers can be either forces for enabling change or barriers to progress, so it’s vital you get them on board. The CIPD says around half of the UK’s line managers are not trained in managing age diverse teams, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with some of the challenges that will arise. Inform, train and support your managers to successfully manage age-diverse teams.
  4. Reviewing policies
    Review existing policies to include older workers and the issues they face. Does your company have a well-thought out workplace carer policy, for example? Most caring responsibilities arise when people are in their late 40s and beyond, and while many people don’t necessarily view themselves as carers, caring for as little as five hours a week can have a significant impact on employment prospects.
  5. Building communities
    Providing intranet resources and practical advice to older workers around health management and wellbeing issues is important. Peer support is also a vital tool for engagement, so encouraging and supporting employee-led networks for health issues, disability or caring helps people share experiences and learn from each other.
  6. Matching leave
    Innovations like a matched leave policy are examples of employers thinking outside the box when it comes to adapting to an ageing workforce. Working carers who need to take a day’s leave to carry out caring tasks get an additional day’s leave to match it. The goodwill that a policy like this engenders is priceless, and it has other benefits besides: it stops employees using up their leave on often stressful tasks and feeling burnt out; it helps employers convert hidden absences into positive leave; and it lets employees avoid feeling they need to pull a sickie.
  7. Tackling unconscious bias
    Recognise that though ageing is universal, it’s not uniform. There are physical challenges associated with getting older – of course there are – but the ways these impact on individuals depend on the job role and the person, and look set to become less relevant as the knowledge-based economy continues to grow. Monitor age as a diversity characteristic in your recruitment process, and remove the upper age limit for apprenticeships and graduate schemes. A returner programme that supports experienced professionals returning after a career break will also help to cultivate a better blend of age and experience across your workforce.
  8. Reviewing life goals
    Do you offer employees a mid-life career review? These can cover employment, training, financial planning and health issues, and offer a chance for people to take stock, review priorities and plan for their future as they age. The kind of holistic life planning it prompts also creates potential to build resilience for later working life, as well as considering health and wellbeing issues in later life.
  9. Training and developing
    Too often, training stops at 50. Rising retirement ages should increase the incentives for employers to invest in new skills for the over 50s, enabling them to work longer if they want to. And both employees and employers need to recognise that job roles may need to evolve over time due to health, disability or caring responsibilities. Job-sharing between younger and older workers, lateral career moves and mentoring younger colleagues are all ways of positively adapting to change.
  10. Planning for finances
    We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: any programme of wellbeing in the workplace should include employee finances. The recently introduced pension reforms mean that employees are faced with a new set of options that require informed choices if they’re to avoid future problems. Offering pension clinic sessions and giving employees targeted, accessible access to advice and guidance around investment will help them avoid future shocks and help them plan their future working life and their retirement.

The over 50s represent a massive knowledge pool; we need more practical steps from employers to support the extension of their working life.