Paving the way to support longer healthier working lives

Aug 22, 2019 | BLOG

By: Stuart Lewis

Recent analysis of the ONS labour market survey over the last 10 years by Rest Less has shown that the number of over 70s in employment has more than doubled in a decade, with nearly half a million working today. Importantly, this increase is not simply due to the increase in over 70s but also because the rate of employment for those in their 70s now stands at nearly 1 in 12 (8.1%); a significant increase from the 1 in 22 (4.5%) ten years ago.

Behind the statistics lies one simple truth – that rising life expectancy means people are, on average, living longer, healthier lives. At its core, this presents both individuals and society with a wonderful opportunity, but to realise its potential, we need to continually challenge previously held assumptions on people’s working patterns as they reach later life. We also need to ensure that we continue to focus on effective preventative interventions across the life course, to ensure that such opportunities are open to all. 

From an affordability perspective, with longer life expectancy, people are having to fund longer retirements. So even many of those in their 70s – who are eligible for the state pension – are choosing to work longer to top up their pensions, to help out children and grandchildren, or in some cases, to simply survive and pay the bills.

Another, more positive angle is that with a wider awareness of mental health in society in general, many more people are choosing to work later for the love of doing so, the social aspect it provides or simply for the routine. With the abolishment of compulsory retirement back in 2011, the idea of stopping work at some arbitrary point dictated by society, has gone away. This in turn has opened up people’s options and made them think about what they want to do – in terms of both work and leisure. Presented with this freedom and choice, there has been a notable rise in those wanting to keep working, but also in those taking later life gap years and other forms of adventure, where people will take time out to travel before returning to normal life and work. This is all a healthy part of people assessing their options and deciding what they want to achieve in the next phase of life.

Of those working in their 50s, three quarters are working full-time. By the time people reach their 60s, just over half are working full time, with the other half working part-time. For those working in their 70s, almost three quarters are doing so part-time.

The other trend we have seen is a rapid increase in self-employment of those over the age of 50, and now nearly half (46%) of the UKs entire self employed workforce are over the age of 50. That is not to say that most workers over the age of 50 are self-employed – in reality only 1 in 5 are working on a self-employed basis – but the over 50s contribution to the total self-employment numbers is worth noting. With many having built up a financial buffer throughout life, increasing numbers are choosing to become their own boss, for the freedom and flexibility it offers – which in turn is creating an army of small business owners and entrepreneurs who are driving the economy forward.

As the types of employment we are seeing varies as people transition through life stages, increasing numbers of people are gradually transitioning into retirement by leaving full-time posts to work on a part-time basis. The key theme here is that people want, or need, more time, not to stop working entirely. Where this is done out of individual choice, it provides a great textbook example of a phased approach into retirement. However, for many, this is not done out of choice, with many people being forced to take reduced hours, or even forced out of the workforce early – due to age discrimination in the workplace, their own health challenges or caring responsibilities for others – often older parents. With an already significant gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, we need to make sure that longer and more flexible working lives don’t risk exacerbating existing social inequalities. As health inequalities continue to disadvantage those of lower socio-economic backgrounds, as a society we need to focus on preventative health intervention throughout peoples’ lives to make sure all of us can enjoy the potential benefits of longevity.

Society needs to actively embrace age in the workplace to maintain productivity

Take one look at the forecasted demographic trends over the next 10 or 20 years and one thing is clear. Employers are going to have to start embracing age in the workplace in a way that they simply don’t today. The Office for National Statistics predicts that the number of 20-49 year-olds will stay broadly flat over the next 10 years, whilst the population of over 50s will surge by 2.7 million, a rise of 11%. When you consider that the employment rate of 20-49 year-olds is around 85%, whilst for the over 50s, it is almost exactly half of that at ~43% – it may well be time to consider whether today’s chronically tight labour market may be more than a cyclical phenomenon.

The prize for employers and society is huge. With every 1% increase in the employment rate of the over 65s, we have nearly 120,000 extra individuals in the workforce – but more importantly we have 120,000 people who are less likely to suffer from the damaging side effects of loneliness, lack of purpose and financial destitution in their later years.

The key thing is finding and creating the right roles and opportunities for people at every different life stage. It’s most definitely not a good outcome if people are forced to work beyond the state pension age out of necessity and are having to do so in roles that are counterproductive to their own health and longevity. Given the right opportunity however, the benefits of staying active into later years are well documented – from improved mental health and lower dementia risk, right through to reduced levels of loneliness and isolation.

To maximise the workplace opportunity presented by this longevity dividend, we need to address some of the barriers that exist today and encourage focus on a number of important policy areas. These include raising awareness of, and ultimately preventing age discrimination in the workplace and continuing to push for more flexibility from employers to allow people to fit their own health considerations and any caring responsibilities around their core employment.

From a health perspective, greater investment in the prevention of ill health is critical to ensure people are not just living longer, but are living healthier lives, for longer. People across all life stages need to be actively included in preventative health interventions, such as – targeted screening programmes to identify the early onset of diseases and those individuals at risk of developing a specific disease, preventative medications, supporting people to adopt healthier lifestyles, rolling out life course immunisation against communicable diseases and supporting people to manage long-term conditions in ways that improve their wellbeing and help them to enjoy active, longer lives.

Unlocking the power of the UK’s talented older workers presents one of the single biggest opportunities to improve the happiness, wellbeing and productivity of society over the next decade. But we need to get it right.

This blog is part of our ‘Future of Ageing: Maximising the economic potential of longevity’ blog series. Join the debate on how society needs to adapt to make the most of the opportunities of our increased longevity at Future of Ageing 2019 on 5 December in London. Tickets, confirmed speakers and more info here.

Stuart Lewis

Chief Executive, Rest Less

Stuart is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Rest Less, the digital community that helps those in their 50s, 60s and beyond find fulfilling opportunities to work, volunteer or even find a new career path.