Standing up for older workers

older workers

In just five years, it is predicted, one in three of the working age population will be over the age of 50 and expecting to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.

Yet in a recent survey, one in five European employees said that age was the biggest obstacle to career progression.

It’s a mismatch which could leave millions of employees feeling undervalued and trapped yet with the expectation of many more working years ahead of them.

So what can employers and politicians do to ensure that the older working population remains a valuable workforce?

Lifelong training

The importance of training was recognised by all three main parties in their recent election manifestos.

Only the Liberal Democrats, however, specifically spotlighted older workers, recognising the particular need to fund mature adult and part-time learning and training. Their manifesto explicitly stated that it is no longer the case that skills learned at 18 will last throughout a career.

All three manifestos spoke of creating opportunities for 18-24 year olds but the irony is that the number of people aged 16-49 in the workforce will have reduced by 700,000 by 2022.

The case for upskilling, retraining and challenging negative stereotypes of older workers is compelling, now more than ever.

What are the barriers?

Significant barriers to lifelong learning have been identified in the recent report from the Skills Commission Spotlight On… Lifelong Learning for an Aging Workforce.

Two of the barriers identified are caring responsibilities for others and their own health or disability issues. Around 20 per cent of 45-59 year olds provide some form of informal care with women being the most likely to leave work to care for someone else.

But the negative attitudes of others are also a significant barrier; ageism still leads to inaccurate assumptions that older workers take more time off sick and have difficulty adapting to change. These negative attitudes contribute to older workers being unable to access employment.

Beneficial legislative changes

Positive changes have already been introduced by the Equality Act 2010 but employers should be aware of further changes that benefit older workers.

The right to request flexible working, for example, allows all employees who have been employed for 26 weeks to make a request to change their hours, times and/or place of work. The employer does not have to agree but it is facilitating less traditional and more manageable ways of going about our working lives that may help older workers in particular.

The recent introduction of the apprenticeship levy requires all employers with an annual pay bill of more than £3m to pay 0.5 per cent of their bill as a levy charge. In 2015-2016, 11.3 per cent of those starting an apprenticeship were aged 45-59. This represents a very positive start.

As the working population increases, it is likely that we will see further legislative changes aimed at encouraging the training and upskilling of older workers. It is imperative for employers to find out about training schemes on offer; to be aware of barriers preventing older workers accessing jobs; to train up managers in understanding these issues; to promote age-diverse teams; to tackle negative stereotypes and to think of better ways to appeal to and engage with older workers.

Amanda Okill, Senior Associate, Furley Page