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Workplace changes are needed to achieve an economic win-win

While some employers are already making headway in creating age-friendly workplaces, increased education and uptake of inclusive practices is needed to keep more of us in work for longer.

Tony Watts OBE, Director of Communications at EngAgeNet, writes about the top ten findings from focus group studies, investigating what a truly age-friendly workplace might look like. 

Every month or two, another survey is published or a statistic released that reinforces the now received wisdom that many of us will need to keep working for longer than we may have planned in order to be financially secure in later life.

Staying in work for longer is certainly beneficial to the individual’s pockets, but it’s also in the government’s interest to support people to work for longer. The longer we can be working and earning, the more we’ll boost tax revenues and the economy, and reduce our chances of needing to access benefits or pension credit. Enlightened employers are also gradually coming around to the view that lifetime’s worth of expertise and experience will be sacrificed if they fail to retain and recruit older workers.

Despite this increased awareness, we still have an estimated 800,000 people aged 50 and over who would like to be in work but are not – and MPs themselves have branded this an “unacceptable waste of talent”.

We know from all the research to date that the principal barrier is a set of entrenched attitudes and workplace practices, including ageist recruitment policies, inflexible hours and an unwillingness to adapt the workplace for ageing bodies.

What we now need are practical ways to overcome the obstacles. And who better to come up with solutions than those most affected: older people themselves?

That is the goal of EngAgeNet – an organisation formed to put the voices of older people back at the heart of national conversations about ageing. We’ve been travelling the country to hold focus groups on a range of pressing topics including care, housing, digital inclusion, employment and retirement.

We held two focus groups on the issue of employment, hoping to gain a granular, detailed picture of what a truly age-friendly workplace might look like. While some alternative experiences and ideas emerged from the two groups, a lot of common ground was established and powerful insight gained.

So what were the top ten findings?
  1. The concept of a “retirement age” is now a thing of the past. Some of us reach the point where we need or want to retire much earlier than others - and workplace attitudes and practices need to reflect this.
  2. Flexible working is essential to retain older workers: many are forced to juggle work with caring responsibilities, while others would prefer to steadily reduce work commitments to allow for poorer health or to enjoy more leisure time. 
  3. For many, a “phased retirement” would provide the optimum solution – taking on a lower paid, less onerous role with reduced hours.
  4. Getting back into the workplace can be highly problematic as employers and recruitment companies make casual judgements about a person’s ability based on their age.
  5. This ageism in recruitment isn’t restricted to older people: younger people often suffer as a result of assumptions based on their age.
  6. Returning to the workplace, especially after taking time out to care, often means having to accept far less skilled work at much lower rates of pay – this is wasting talent and forcing some people into physically demanding jobs.
  7. Older people should be prepared to retrain in order to update their skills – but accessing training can be difficult for those without financial resources.
  8. Older workers are generally very happy to work with younger people – and opportunities are being missed to mentor them, learn from them and complement their skills as part of a multi-generational workforce.
  9. The concept of a Mid-Life Review now being promoted by the Government – where employers and employees have a frank and unpressured conversation about the future – would benefit workers of all ages, especially those with caring responsibilities or other priorities in life apart from work.
  10. Adapting the workplace for people with disabilities or reduced mobility will be essential to enable an ageing workforce to remain in work, and this will help many younger people with disabilities too.

Large numbers of older workers themselves want – and need – to keep economically active, while changing demographics and Brexit threaten a looming skills shortage. A win-win solution is achievable if more employers sit down with older people and work together on this challenge. The next stage of our plans is to kickstart that process, working with organisations and employers who share our vision.

Tony Watts OBE is Director of Comms for EngAgeNet and is currently co-writing a book on mid-life reviews. 

Age-friendly employers

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