Dave Watson: Redesign world of work to reflect longer lives

Much has been written about the demographic time bomb and the impact on public services. Much less has been written about the workforce implications of an ageing workplace and the measures unions and employers need to consider.

Dave Watson is the Head of Policy & Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland.
Dave Watson is the Head of Policy & Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland.

In 1917, the first year centenarians were acknowledged by the Crown, George V sent 17 messages. Last year, the Queen sent 6,405 congratulatory cards. We are not just living longer, we are also working longer and the workforce is getting older. By 2020, one in three workers in the UK will be over 50 and the number working past the State Pension Age (SPA) has doubled since 2000. In the Scottish public sector the biggest and fastest-growing group of workers are in the 50-59 age band. Even with longer working lives, 40 per cent of the public sector workforce is likely to retire in the next ten years. This will create enormous challenges for public service delivery.

So what measures should we be considering to address this issue?

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Let’s start with our attitudes towards age at work. As with society as a whole, the workplace can be ageist, too willing to write off older workers. Despite age discrimination laws, too many employers and managers have an unconscious bias against older workers. We see this in attitudes to training and development, and promotion opportunities.

CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) Scotland director John McGurk speaks of the “demographic dividend” rather than “demographic time bomb”. He has a point when you consider that there could be 7.5m net job vacancies to be filled by 2022, and that doesn’t take account of the impact of Brexit. One million unemployed 50-64 year olds want to work across the UK – they would bring much-needed skills to the workplace.

There is an outdated economic myth that the size of the labour market is fixed. If older workers don’t retire, this will somehow limit the opportunities for younger workers. Migration has shown how these workers not only plug gaps in the workforce, they stimulate economic growth. The same is true of older workers. It has been estimated that if unemployed older workers returned to the workplace, it would add £88bn to the UK’s economy. Some of the most innovative research into ageing is being undertaken at Stirling University by Professor David Bell and his team. He argues that the change in the SPA has driven the increase in older workers, along with life expectancy. The Cridland review of the SPA has recommended a further increase in the SPA to 68 in 2037-39.

This is based on predictions that average life expectancy will continue to increase. However, averages hide huge variations between affluent and deprived areas and between occupations. It also fails to take into account healthy life expectancy, which also varies between these groups. Fewer than half of those reaching the SPA today are in work.

Access to pension schemes has improved, largely as a result of auto-enrolment, particularly for older women. However, many of these pensions will not provide an adequate income. This means that pensions need to improve if the older workforce is going to have a real choice about the type of employment they undertake, rather than being forced into unsuitable jobs out of necessity.

As the workforce gets older there is an increasing likelihood of burnout due to physical and emotional stress. Workplaces need to be redesigned to reflect age factors. For example, the number of people with dementia is forecast to increase to over 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. It is estimated that 18 per cent already continue to work after diagnosis, creating a new workplace safety issue few employers are even recognising.

Few employers have a strategy for dealing with an ageing workforce. Workforce and succession planning is limited. One of the more positive recommendations of the Cridland Review was a mid-life career/lifestyle MOT. This could include a range of wind-down options as well as career changes. We should also consider Australian-style sabbaticals.

Employers have begun to address flexible working for parents with children, but less consideration has been given to elder care. This should also attract statutory carer’s leave. Income support in the social security system should be addressed with changes to conditionality rules that recognise part-time work.

Important though these practical measures are, living longer requires a big culture change. We need to break away from the old learn-work-retire model and embrace a new approach recognising the benefits of longevity in the workplace and elsewhere.

Dave Watson is the Head of Policy & Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland.