Projections show that over the
next few decades we will become an increasingly aging society. People born
today can look forward to a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. The number of
people in Europe age 65 or over will rise from 57 million in 1995 to 81
million in 2025, according to the OECD. A
"demographic time bomb" as it's sometimes called.
increasing life expectancy, a lower birth rate in recent years, and the
bay-boomer generation heading for retirement, the prospect is of a greatly
increased retired population being dependent on a reduced active
Policy debate in the UK has
tended to revolve around pensions - how to save enough during working life
to ensure financial security through maybe 30+ years of retired life.
Rethinking the finances,
however, is only part of the solution. Addressing the workforce issues is
also important. Two types of action are needed to address the
Import more workers!
The first of the options
- immigration - is largely beyond the scope of Flexibility. The
debate currently focuses on "asylum seekers" and tends to be
tinged with xenophobia and racism. But the UK could benefit from a
more flexible and targeted approach to economically motivated migration.
Pressures for immigration will
not recede in the near future. Apart from looking at the numbers needed in
the workforce to keep the economy going, policy makers need also to look
at the skills required and relate it to our changing society A
larger retired population, generally more prosperous than previous
generations, will generate new demands for services and the skills
required to deliver them.
The present and upcoming
generations of retired people will be generally fit and active and will
create demand in sectors such as retail, education, leisure and tourism,
and transport. The economy needs to expand to meet the demand - will the
workers be available to do this?
The main source of extra
labour, however, should still be from the indigenous workforce.
A fixed retirement age and old
age pension were fought for by working people as a right for all citizens.
But with the changing nature of work, and increased prospects of being fit
and active in later life, there is a strong argument for taking a less
rigid approach to retirement.
A simplistic approach is to
raise the retirement age. If popes, monarchs and judges can work till they
drop, why not the rest of us? Management guru Peter Drucker calculated
"within the next 20 to 30
the retirement age in all developed countries will have to move up to
around 79 or so - 79 being the age that, in terms of both life and health
expectancies, corresponds to age 65 in 1936"
(Management Challenges for the 21st Century)
But for many, if not most of
us, this would be a step backwards. The alternative is to create the
gradual, or phased retirement
it is possible to take on paid
work during retirement without financial penalty.
Forum on Age (EFA) favours the introduction of flexible
retirement. A recent study by the EFA indicated that
could boost the economically active population by 3 million, which could
raise [UK] GDP by £50 billion or more per year".
It is not only people over the
official retirement age who become lost to the workforce. Increasingly
people over 50 are taking early retirement, or become excluded from the
workforce due to ageist attitudes on the part of employers. As an
indicator of this growth in economic inactivity: in 1975 95% of men aged
55-65 were in work. In 1999 this was down to 60%.
Numbers aged 50-64 who are economically
For employers - especially
those experiencing recruitment difficulties and skills shortages - the
older workforce is a resource waiting to be tapped. But a key obstacle is
the "all or nothing" mentality.
Options which could suit many older
workers - including those beyond official retirement age - include:
part-time working, including
short-term contract working,
e.g. running or contributing to projects where their skills and
experience are vital
flexible location working, e.g.
doing some or all of former role from a home or local office: can
be particularly valuable for smaller firms needing to retain
skills of a worker who wants to edge towards retirement and avoid
seasonal working, e.g. in
leisure and catering industries where older workers provide
experience and stability which can rub off on younger casual workers
The current disincentives to such
inflexible attitudes in
organisations to new ways of working
pension schemes based on final
salary, which work against phased or early retirement
a taxation and benefits regime
which penalises mixing or alternating work and not-work
services products which tie one to a treadmill and treat
retirement as a one-off immovable event.
Bill Gates, in his book
"The Road Ahead" cheerfully asserts that we've all had those
times in our working lives when we're so into it we bring our sleeping
bags ito work and catch the odd hour of sleep under the desks. Taken with
the appropriate pinch of salt, he has a point. Work can be intensive and
enjoyable even when the hours are long.
But on the other hand, there
are times when we prefer to sleep at home. Possibly even in the middle of
The point is that in life we
are likely to go through many phases. Scaling down work activity is one of
them. Employers and public policy need to adjust to take account of this.
Ageist attitudes - even
where you don't expect them
Too often older people are seen as the problem
in the demographic imbalance, rather than part of the solution.
Here's an unexpected example of this. I
attended a "work-life balance" conference recently, where older
people were mentioned numerous times by speakers and from the floor. In every
case these references were to dependent elderly relatives who created
work-life issues for younger workers.
Work-life balance, however,
also has to be seen as an issue for older workers. Leading up to
retirement, it is important to be able to adjust the balance between home
and work. It applies after retirement, too. But in this case balance may
mean that an excess of home life needs to be leavened with a little