There are business advantages to employing over 50s, including higher motivation and emotional stability
“The perception people have when you mention over 50s workers, is that they think of tech illiteracy, low skills base and crumbling health,” says jobs matchmaker Jonathan Collie. “But people don’t realise that they’re often at their peak.”
Collie, founder of the Trading Times, a service that matches employers with over 50s jobseekers, is one of a number of advocates calling for employers to realise the advantages of taking on older workers. Ageist stereotypes, they say, not only lead to discrimination, but may mean businesses miss out on valuable talent.
Campaigners say older workers should not be forced to work, but given the opportunity to continue if they want.
Collie has launched a national debate, The Age of No Retirement?, on the issue of older workers.
“People are now living longer, healthier and more productively than ever before,” he says. “In other words, we are younger for longer. So we need to start thinking in terms of positives.
“People aren’t falling apart at the seams at the age of 60 – they can be as productive as people in their 20s, because they have so much experience. They are more resilient, they have a greater depth of emotional intelligence, they’re more committed to their employers and are equally driven.”
Ros Altmann, the government’s adviser on older workers, says more needs to done to harness the potential of over 50s.
“There are strong business reasons that employers are starting to discover to favour taking on at least some older workers,” she says.
Altmann, who was appointed to her position in July, adds: “There’s no doubt that there is age discrimination in the labour market. You can stereotype the young and have prejudices against them just as much as you can have prejudices against older people. My wish would be to make sure that everyone is taken on their own merits without a preconception.”
There are more over 50s in employment than ever before, but more than half the labour force has already stopped working before they reach state pension age. Although some people enjoy a planned early retirement, it is more common for people to feel forced out of work by circumstances beyond their control, according to the Centre for Policy on Ageing.
Altmann has been critical of the government’s slow progress towards balancing the age of the workforce. “They’re late. Very, very late,” she says. “The demographics have been clear for a long time and the ageing population has been happening for the last 65 years. I’m convinced it will happen, I’d just like to see it happen quicker. If we don’t make this work well, we’re talking about economic decline.
“By 2020 there’ll be 3.7m more people in this country aged 50 to state pension age, and 700,000 fewer aged 16-49. So if we want to make the most of the resources in the economy, we really need to make this agenda work, and work for people.”
In recent years there has been a push to get young people into jobs, but no campaign for older workers. For instance, employers can win government subsidies for taking on apprenticies who are under 25, but there is no equivalent for over 50s.
“We’ve done some amazing things for younger people – initiatives to get young people into work,” says Altman. “I think we could benefit as a society from spreading that to older people as well. I think the current apprenticeship subsidies are having a really positive effect on ensuring young people receive apprentice placements and would certainly welcome the programme being extended to older jobseekers as well now.
“The government presumably does not believe that having special programmes to address job prospects for the young is ageist, otherwise they would not have introduced them. However it does seem a shame that they are not focusing more on older people too.”
She adds: “I would like to see more focus on the benefits of keeping older people in work; not forcing anyone to, but enabling them to.”
However, Altmann is clear that she does not want the call for age equality to be twisted into an excuse for creating generational divisions. “That’s what I would hate to see happen,” she says. “There is already a dangerous undercurrent of intergenerational strife or envy which can creep into all this kind of debate. It’s not only unhelpful, but unfair.”
She explains: “Very often, if one is talking about employing an older person, the typical response can be ‘where are the jobs for the young?’. But there is no evidence that older people take younger people’s jobs and in fact the academic evidence shows that employing older people and younger people is complimentary, they’re not substitutes.”
As well as the need for social equality, research has shown there are strong business advantages to taking on older workers. Studies have shown they can have lower absenteeism, lower turnover, higher motivation, and stronger emotional stability.
“It’s more about trying to rebalance the position, rather than saying there’s something particularly special about them,” says Dave Martin of the Centre for Policy on Ageing. “I’m always a bit uneasy about trying to talk up the value of any particular member of the community – we should be valuing absolutely everybody. My anxiety at the moment is that society tends to value people who are economically active.”
Martin adds: “Increasingly older people need to bring in some income: quite a lot still have children living at home, or parents who they have responsibility for. We keep saying that the young are our future. But ageing is our future, for everyone.”
Read more from the big ageing population debate:
This article was written by Martin Williams, for theguardian.com on Thursday 20th November 2014 10.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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