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Older employee at work

Older workers can help us unlock the productivity puzzle

The latest statistics show that UK productivity fell at the end of last year, creating problems for the economy.

Our ageing workforce isn’t complicating Britain’s productivity puzzle, argues Emily Andrews. They will be key to solving it.

Productivity growth is not just slow – at the end of last year, it was non-existent.

The puzzling thing is – no one quite knows why. Reasons often put forward for low productivity include low pay in low skilled jobs, lack of investment in new technologies and processes, and a failure to reskill workers for the challenges of the 21st century.

Whatever is behind this worrying trend, efforts to turn it around in the coming decades will have to take account of the changing workforce which, among other things, is getting older. By 2025, there will be 300,000 fewer workers under age-30 and a million more workers over age-50.

This is not just the backdrop against which efforts to solve the productivity puzzle will take place. It holds part of the solution.

Improving productivity is how we drive economic growth, without making everyone work harder – by getting more out of every hour of human labour worked. With the robots apparently poised to take over our jobs, this should be a given.

But the latest statistics show that productivity actually fell at the end of last year – and was lower in the last decade than any other time in the last century.

If we want to solve the productivity puzzle, we need to make work better for everyone, invest in skills and training for all, and make sure older workers are respected and supported.
We can’t improve Britain’s poor productivity without older workers

A lot of attention has been given to the technology needed to turn this around. But there has been less discussion about the people who will be at the heart of improving Britain’s productivity levels – its workforce.

A third of today’s workers are over 50 years old. Some see this as a problem, assuming older workers will be less energetic or more resistant to change. But in fact, there’s no evidence an older workforce is less able or willing to embrace new technologies or take up innovative approaches. Recent research on the impact of demographic change on private sector organisations in the UK sends a clear message: an ageing workforce does not damage financial performance.

We know there is huge untapped potential amongst people in later life. At least one million over 50s are not in work, but want to be. Many more remain in work, but are denied access to the training and development opportunities enjoyed by their younger colleagues. Across the OECD, only Turkey and Slovenia have lower levels of on-the-job training for older workers.

There are lots of things employers can do to support older workers. They can make flexible working more readily available, to suit the needs of people with caring responsibilities, or health conditions. They can make sure training and development is equally available to all, whatever age and stage they are at. And they can root out age-bias from their recruitment processes.

Dismissing older workers as ‘past it’ – and allowing them to underestimate themselves – is not just damaging to the individuals who are denied access to opportunities to grow and develop.

These attitudes damage our economy – and by extension, all of our chances for a richer, more fulfilling life. We won’t be able to improve productivity without them.

The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding life to our years

Read more
 Emily Andrews
Senior Evidence Manager