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Why are we afraid to talk about our ageing workforce?

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Working into later life is now a reality for most of us. But a longer working life doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier one. Professor Wendy Loretto wants to improve job quality and options for workers over 50.

We’re sitting on a demographic timebomb. Like many western countries with falling birth rates, the UK population is ageing. With fewer and fewer young people entering the workforce and topping up the state pension pot, encouraging people to stay in work longer has become the popular economic solution.

Still, we can’t avoid the fact that living longer doesn’t always mean ageing more healthily. In the UK’s population almost half of 50 to 64 year-olds have at least one long-term health condition. Moreover, for one in five workers who leave the workforce before the state pension age, ill-health is the main reason for retiring early.

“Being in quality work is good for our physical and mental wellbeing, keeping us agile in body and mind,” says Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Wendy Loretto. “But we need to be realistic about the challenges many older workers face.”

Change over time

It has been illegal to discriminate by age in the UK since 2006. Since 2011, the law has also prevented employers from forcing workers to retire. Thanks – in part – to this legislation, between September 2016 and September 2020, employment rates among the over-50s grew faster than any other age group. However, the coronavirus pandemic did bring about a noticeable decline as almost half a million workers aged 50 plus left the workforce.

“Things have generally changed for the better,” Professor Loretto tells us. “Growing numbers of employers now offer fantastic occupational health services, for example. However, these often only address a fraction of the repercussions of continuing to work later in life. It’s not just chronic health issues that impact older people’s ability to continue working. There are many other factors, from caring for older family members and grandchildren to mental health and financial wellbeing. There is much talk about flexible retirement, whether that involves taking on fewer hours, fewer responsibilities or a new role. Still, the reality is we see very little of it happening. As a result, the after-50 retirement cliff edge still exists.”

Fear of being side-lined

Professor Loretto’s research has revealed that many workers over 50 are unaware of their employers’ policies for older workers. While others say they worry about asking for additional support as they fear the consequences.

“The increased number of people retiring during the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that if they feel financially secure, some people will take the opportunity to leave work to prioritise other areas of their lives, such as family. At the same time, others may step aside through a sense of obligation to ‘clear the way’ for younger people to climb the ranks. Unfortunately, this means that many people who continue to work do so not because they want to but because they have to,” Professor Loretto explains. “We also find women are disproportionally affected. Many won’t ask for additional support either because they fear they’ll be side-lined and denied skills and development opportunities. Others worry they’ll lose their job, won’t have enough retirement savings and will never find a new position.”

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Workplace taboos continue

Professor Loretto and Edinburgh colleagues have worked closely with the Scottish Government, charities and employer groups to address the demographic pressures hitting Scotland particularly hard compared to other UK nations. These collaborations have highlighted other powerful barriers to age inclusion in the country’s workplaces.

“It isn’t just people over 50 who find this challenging. Employers are often scared of talking about ageing. Cognitive decline and even retirement itself are still so taboo in many workplaces that managers will avoid speaking to employees about them, for fear of doing anything that leads to age discrimination accusations,” Professor Loretto notes. “Instead, they do nothing, which leaves older employees feeling undervalued and even more reluctant to come forward to ask for help. We have seen a significant change in attitudes to break taboos around menopause, but this still hasn’t translated sufficiently into action.”

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Breaking down barriers

Professor Loretto and colleagues’ work spurred the Scottish Government to include age in its £5 million investment into the Workplace Equality Fund and was influential in developing Scotland’s Older People’s Framework and Gender Pay Action Plan. She has also worked with Age Scotland to create a new age-inclusion HR consultancy service, the Age Inclusive Matrix, to enable organisations to implement policies and practical support for over 5,000 employees working into later life. Meanwhile, a partnership with Age Scotland, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development Scotland (CIPD) and Business in the Community Scotland (BITC) on the Age@Work Employers’ Network also regularly brings employers together in a clinic-style practical session to tackle topics such as how to enable flexible working to accommodate elder care responsibilities.

Helping people find a healthy balance

While ageing is inevitable, Professor Loretto, who has examined its impact on our working lives since she began her academic career in the late 1990s, clarifies that each of us experiences it differently. “The most definite thing that’s happened during my research is that I’ve become a worker over 50. Like many people in this category, the term ‘older worker’ still seems alien, and I’ve long argued against grouping people together in this category. There are many differences between individuals, not least that the age range of this category can span from 50 to 80 plus. Experiences and situations differ markedly because of demographic, health and financial factors. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve observed this divergence in experience even more.”

Working with academic colleagues, employers, employees and professional bodies, Professor Loretto is examining these differences as part of a major three-year study exploring the links between work and health in the lives of workers over 50. The Supporting Healthy Ageing at Work (SHAW) project examines how hidden health issues such as menopause, cognitive decline, financial wellbeing and the needs of people caring for relatives, which are often overlooked in the workplace, impact older workers.

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“We need to have the confidence to open up conversations about the choices available to workers over 50 and challenge the neoliberal attitude that says, ‘you’re responsible for your ageing, and if you don’t age well, it’s your fault’,” Professor Loretto argues. “By working with industry partners to help them understand these issues, we can overcome this perception and co-design practical tools with employers and employees to help older workers stay in paid work for longer and improve their overall wellbeing.”

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