Why aren’t more people talking about the impact of longevity on the workforce?

Feb 25, 2019 | BLOG

By: Stuart Lewis

The implications for later life career paths, company recruitment and the evolution of the workplace are profound. As a society we are starting to wake up to many of the impacts of increased longevity – on the health system, on the provision of care and on pension saving requirements. However, one topic that feels notably under represented, is the impact and inter-relation of longevity on the workforce of tomorrow. Workers in their 50s, 60s and beyond have been the driving force behind employment growth in the UK economy over the last 10 years.

At restless.co.uk, our latest analysis of the ONS labour market statistics showed that nearly 80% of the growth in UK employment over the last decade has come from the over 50s.  A staggering fact, and one made even more impactful if you consider that the ONS expects the number of over 50s to increase by nearly 20% over the next 10 years, an additional 4.5 million individuals. To simply maintain current rates of employment, that requires us to prepare society and the workplace for millions more older workers being gainfully employed.

This picture however, belies a dark truth that many of our members continue to feel shut out of the workforce, often feeling actively discriminated against when applying for new employment opportunities. Given the growing size and importance of this demographic, coupled with their significant contribution to economic growth, it is surprising not to see more employers actively embrace the opportunity presented by this talented and flexible workforce.

The health and wellbeing benefits of working into retirement

Few people benefit from the sudden transition from working 5 days a week to suddenly not working at all. Retirement is often an unsettling period and it’s not surprising given that the most common path into retirement is to go ‘cold turkey’ and simply stop working.

Given the right opportunity, the health benefits of staying active in later years through work and/or volunteering are well documented. From social challenges such as loneliness, later life poverty and isolation, through to clinical conditions such as dementia, the prescription is often the same. Stay physically active, stay socially active and continue to use your grey matter as much as possible. 

When my father passed away in 2016 after 36 years in retirement, I became increasingly fascinated by the role that work and volunteering could play in addressing these big societal challenges and helping people retain their sense of purpose into later life. What’s more, given the convincing economic arguments for continuing to work into later life for all parties – for individuals, the Government and big corporations alike – it feels like there is an opportunity to drive sweeping societal change with minimal Governmental investment.  

The abolition of compulsory retirement back in 2011 was a watershed moment. Our analysis of the ONS Labour Market statistics published last week show that there are almost half a million more over 65s in employment than there were before the change in policy. That’s a significant rise of 46% in less than 8 years, which sounds remarkable until you realise that the rate of employment of this demographic remains just below 11% and the rate of growth has slowed in recent years.

With the state pension age set to be pushed back to 66 imminently, my expectation is that we will see another notable increase in over 65s employment over the next couple of years as people push back the start of retirement. However I fear that this will then plateau or even decline if attitudes in the workplace aren’t changed in the face of a rapidly growing population of over 65s.       

The statistics: working beyond the state pension age 

To try and understand this further, Rest Less worked with YouGov to ask a nationally representative sample of 2000 people if they planned to work beyond state pension age, and if so, why? The survey found that one in three (34%) people in the UK plan to work beyond their state pension age. While a worrying 40% of these people planned to continue working because they didn’t think they could afford to retire, 51% said they wanted to continue working for mental and physical health reasons. These reasons included the opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills and to keep busy.

Awareness of the health and wellbeing benefits of staying active into retirement may also explain why over one in four (27%) said they planned to work in a volunteering role after reaching state pension age.

But what jobs and careers are people looking to engage with at this stage of life?  Obviously, it depends. The most important thing to remember is that this is a very heterogeneous population with many different hopes, ambitions and expectations. The one thing that binds all of our members, is a desire to keep doing more into their later years.

Certainly it’s not a good outcome, if those planning to work beyond state pension age out of necessity, are doing so in roles that are counterproductive to both their own health and longevity. Not all of us can be like David Attenborough or Judi Dench!   

It’s perhaps unsurprising that of our 2000 respondents, 24% were planning to work in a part-time capacity post state pension age, perhaps in order to give them more time to focus on socialising and enjoying other hobbies and activities. Only 10% planned to continue working full-time.

What is clear is the scale of opportunity this presents for both individuals and society. For every 1% increase in the employment rate of the over 65s, we have nearly 120 thousand extra individuals in the workforce – but more importantly we have 120 thousand people who are less likely to suffer from the damaging side effects of loneliness, lack of purpose and financial destitution in their later years.

What’s more, current ONS population projections indicate that there will be an additional 1.6M people in their 60s by 2030, so even maintaining the current employment rates will require significant increases in employment numbers of the over 60s. My concern is that we simply won’t achieve it without the appropriate debate and awareness of the topic at the highest levels.

What needs to change?

The legal baselines are in place – companies are no longer able to force someone to retire and age discrimination is illegal in the recruitment process.  However, the reality is that subtle forms of age discrimination are still rife.  At Rest Less, we talk about age as the hidden discriminatory factor in the workforce – most other forms are regularly discussed and talked about by big employers, but few have given age discrimination more than a cursory nod. Perhaps this is because age discrimination is often subtle and difficult to detect. One of the most common forms of age discrimination “you’ve got too much experience” is incorrectly passed off by the discriminator as a compliment.

As a society, we are great at respecting elders in the workplace who have diligently pursued a single career path – for example many of the politicians running our country and many of the business leaders running our big corporations are in their 60s and beyond.  Where we fall down collectively, is for individuals who follow a less linear career path. Individuals who have taken several years out as a carer, to raise children, or those looking to change careers later in life often find it particularly difficult to return to the workplace, something only made harder in their 60s due to age discrimination.       

So what needs to be done?  

  • Firstly, we need to continue pursuing a working environment that truly embraces flexibility
  • Secondly, additional government and enterprise support for later life apprenticeships is essential for those looking to put their rich life skills to work in a new and valuable way
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that attitudes need to change. Subtle forms of age discrimination need to be identified and tackled and people need to start discussing age in the workplace openly and positively.

We all know that due to medical advances, the global population is set to age dramatically. Whether we see this as a ticking time bomb or embrace the economic opportunity this presents is purely a matter of perspective.

Stuart Lewis

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Rest Less

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

Website: restless.co.uk Email: stuart@restless.co.uk