A long way to go…

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We were delighted yesterday to have Professor Phil Taylor, a friend and close associate of the ILC-UK, present some findings from a study he lead into policies facilitating working in later life.  The study, based at the Dublin’s European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, looked at measures enacted in 120 organisations to improve the employment situation of older workers.

Unsurprisingly, there are a host of facts that back up the need for these kind of initiatives: e.g. there are 1 million people aged over state pension age in paid employment in the EU, and yet, apparently, 10% of companies do not employ anyone over 50. In the healthcare workforce, large proportions of workers are approaching later life, for example, 1 nurse in 5 is over 50 in the UK. In France, only 23% of physicians are under 40. Will we be able to keep these workers engaged, or will we see large groups of professionals retiring en masse leaving health and social care high and dry?
Phil’s work was particularly interesting as the study revisited participants in an earlier survey, allowing researchers to see how initiatives to improve working life for older employees had faired. I was most immediately struck by his candid appraisal of the status of older workers. Despite a few key best practice examples, and despite the much-awaited policy framework of anti-discrimination legislation, such schemes were often dropped the moment a company hit financial difficulties, often whilst the hot air was still pouring forth. Moral of the story? When times are good, social responsibility is a nice add-on. When times are bad, it’s a quick about turn and a revert-to-type early retirement initiative is wheeled out. Even in countries where legislation has arrived before the UK (we are running a few years late) actual cases of successful prosecution were rare and payouts desultory.  We certainly have a long way to go, a point underlined by the April 2006 announcement that Ericsson was seeking 1,500 voluntary redundancies from workers aged 35-50 to make way for younger employees. The reason? To ‘ensure competitiveness’ and ‘rebalance’ the workforce.
In the midst of all this, there are of course some excellent best practice examples of course. When committed employees created thoughtful and long-lasting schemes, benefits to employers were found to include greater staff commitment, a reduction in sickness and absence rates, reduced labour costs and greater productivity, reduced conflict and better teamworking, and unsurprisingly, reduced pension costs from later retirement.  For older workers, these schemes tended to bring better health, self-esteem and wellbeing, opportunities for learning new skills, increased motivation and better pensions.  Yet it was also apparent that a great deal of confusion surrounds these issues. In many instances, trade unions and workers groups had opposed these measures to facilitate working life and reduce early retirement, no doubt believing that working later was to be ‘cheated’, a particularly common philosophy in continental Europe. This brought home something that had been puzzling me already on the issue: when I am 50, what will I want? Will I want to retire, or keep working? I like to think I will be in some form of rewarding employment, but what if I’m not? Some studies have pointed to a link between early retirement and worsened health outcomes. Hopefully I will be able to work because I want to, but if it is driven by financial necessity, will suitable jobs be there for me?  

Ed Harding

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