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Sunset strategies

Steaming on, shifting down, greeting a new dawn

About to ride off into the sunset? Or start the early morning round-up, perhaps

I once worked with an older colleague who put in a full working day (and a bit more) as he approached his 70th birthday.  He used to speak of gradually scaling down his working hours as he approached the "sunset of his career". His main reason for working was that, having been in the army, he had married late: his younger children were still going through university and needed parental support.

People have many reasons for working on beyond the official retirement age. There are also many reasons for taking early retirement, or scaling down work before you hit the magic number. In an age that puts a high premium on individual choice, it is strange that governments, employers and financial services providers still feel the need to dictate on such highly personal matters as our career-span and the timing of our retirement.

But in the UK, at least, there are signs that this is changing. New research by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) into flexible retirement highlights the benefits and barriers, and includes 20 case studies of flexible retirement policies from large employers.

The research shows

  • how large organisations are dealing with the issues

  • how policies to support flexible retirement can be developed and implemented, and

  • that employers implementing flexible retirement practices are doing so to meet core business needs such as skills retention and give wider choice to their workforce.

Flexible retirement options

The research distinguishes two main categories of flexible retirement policy:

  1. Policies offering flexibility over the date of retirement (optional retirement); and

  2. Policies offering flexibility over both retirement date and working patterns as retirement approaches (optional, downshifting and gradual retirement).

The first of these types of policy is much more common. It may be worth noting in passing that early retirement is not always an entirely voluntary decision - it is also often associated with company restructuring and downsizing. In these circumstances it may be the best available choice, rather than the best choice in meeting personal aspirations.

Flexible working options that the research associates with flexible retirement include:

  • Part-time working

  • Job sharing

  • Downshifting (gradually reducing workplace responsibilities over time, possibly involving changing jobs within the organisation and/or moving to a lower grade, or a less pressurised environment)

  • Sabbaticals (time off to travel or to pursue further education, or write a book, etc)

  • Secondments and volunteering

Barriers to flexible retirement

If it's so good, why isn't everyone doing it? The research picked up a number of barriers to introducing flexible retirement practices. Some of these can be tackled in the workplace, but others require action from the government.

  • Inland Revenue Rules:

  • Occupational pension benefits cannot be paid while an employee is still working for the same employer. This makes gradual retirement unattractive because employees are unable to supplement a reduced income (likely with part time work or other flexible options) with their pension benefits. This is particularly likely to affect staff on lower incomes.
  • Occupational Pension Fund Structures: Rigid occupational fund structures originally designed to protect employees are a key barrier to employers trying to deliver flexible retirement .

  • Unions: Unions have worked to protect employee rights and need to be reassured flexible retirement policies do not threaten employees’ retirement choices and income in retirement, nor work as a way of reducing pay for older workers.

  • Perceptions and Attitudes towards Older Workers: Stereotypes about older workers are still a major issue and include assumptions about outdated skill levels and promotion ‘blocking’ (preventing younger employees from advancing within an organisation). This negative view of older workers impacts on policies designed to increase older worker participation.

  • Attitudes of Managers and Individuals: The language of retirement focuses on quitting work rather than being able to continue contributing to an organisation. Flexible working is still unfamiliar, and there is a perception that employees taking these options are not fully committed to the organisation.

  • Management Fears: There is concern over how complicated and difficult flexible retirement might be to implement. Specific fears expressed in this research include:

    • equality of access (for all employees) and consistency of policy

    • employer liability

    • how to manage performance

    • health and safety

    • insurance

    • sickness management

    • meeting employee expectations.

  • Resource Issues: Developing a flexible policy, particularly a policy with lots of flexible options will take time and money - the up-front investment is needed to reap the benefits.

Case Studies

The 20 case studies are from larger organisations, ranging from 650 to 100,00 employees. The range of policies they have introduced varies: some are considering doing it, others have dipped their toes in the water, while others have implemented a range of innovative policies.

If you're looking for ideas in the field of flexible retirement, this isn't a bad place to start.


We've focused on flexible retirement before - and we're extremely pleased some new research by the UK government showing its commitment to making some changes.

The research we refer to can be found on the Age Positive website. There's a short report there and a selection of case studies.

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