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What makes an age-friendly workplace?

Blog | Luke Price, Evidence Officer, Centre for Ageing Better | 13 July 2017

Barely a day goes by without some mention of longer working lives in the news. From the more optimistic visions about how we can enable older workers to participate in fulfilling work, to very real concerns about ‘forcing’ older people to work when their health simply does not permit. Clearly, this is a topic that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It is therefore crucial that policy makers and employers start thinking now about how we can make workplaces more age friendly.

Fulfilling work in later life

Our past research has highlighted the importance of fulfilling work in later life. Perhaps this is unsurprising: fulfilling work is integral to the lives of most people at pretty much any age beyond our earlier education-focused years. Perhaps unsurprisingly our research shows that those over 50 have very similar ideas of what constitutes fulfilling work as those who are under 50, challenging stereotypes about how ‘the old’ are so vastly different from ‘the young’. It would appear that everyone, regardless of age, wants to be able to make a meaningful contribution, interact with others, and have opportunities for learning and progression.

However, the research also highlighted some key differences in the experience of work in later life. In particular health becomes a bigger concern as we age, as does the need for flexible and/or part-time working to accommodate both these health needs and new caring responsibilities. This makes ensuring workplaces are sensitive to the needs of older workers very important, otherwise we risk not only forcing people out of employment before they want to leave, but failing to benefit from the experience and skills on offer from those working in their later life.

Age-friendly workplaces

But what makes an age-friendly workplace? What are the best ways to facilitate and support flexible working, prevent age bias in recruitment, and maximise the benefit of mixed-age teams? These are the three broad questions that Ageing Better, in partnership with BITC, have set out to answer in our newly commissioned research.

Although inevitably inter-linked, each of these questions poses a unique set of challenges. Within each topic we will look at the prevalence of the issue, the ways in which it affects individuals and organisations and, most importantly, how we can overcome the challenges posed and seize the opportunities that arise from an ageing workforce.

The current evidence base on these three areas is mixed. There is a lot of evidence about the general challenges and opportunities posed by flexible working, but how much do we know about the specific need for flexible working in later life? For example, those caring for an elderly parent or relative have very different work-related needs to those caring for their young children. Similarly, whilst there is plentiful evidence about bias and discrimination on protected characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, there is far less about how practices and attitudes may relate to age and all the ways in which age intersects with gender, ethnicity, and other characteristics. Finally, there is a range of evidence on how to effectively manage teams, but not necessarily specifically around age.

Our new project aims to identify what evidence already exists, improve the evidence base where there are gaps, and use these complementary findings to influence employer behaviour.  The demographics of society are changing. People are living longer, and will therefore be working longer. To ensure individuals, businesses and society as a whole are able to thrive in this new reality, recruiting and retaining older workers simply isn’t enough – we need to present the same level of flexibility, inclusivity and opportunity to everybody, regardless of age.