Age myths must be confronted

As Europe’s population ages, the challenge of maintaining well-being and productivity into later life is forcing its way up the agenda – for employers, governments and for us as individuals. The issue is becoming increasingly urgent as we grapple with the consequences of rising longevity, declining fertility and persistent trends towards early retirement.

Even if you don’t accept all the hype about pension timebombs, if you look at the demographics it is impossible to miss the financial and employment challenges ahead.

Population projections suggest the number of people aged between 50 and 69 will increase in the UK from 13 million today to 15.9 million by 2024, while the number of births will fall.

By 2050, one in four of the population will be aged over 65, compared with one in six now and one in 20 100 years ago. And by then, the average man of 65 can expect to live for another 22 years, and the average woman another 25.

Meanwhile, employment rates for the 50-plus population are still relatively low, despite concerted efforts to reverse longstanding trends towards early -retirement.


The government’s response to these challenges is a pledge to bring one million older workers back into paid employment. A huge amount of effort is going into identifying and overcoming obstacles to older employees staying in the job market.

There has been an avalanche of reports, voluntary codes, action plans and best practice guides from the government, employers groups such as the CBI, voluntary sector groups such as Age Concern and professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Age discrimination legislation is scheduled to come into force in October this year, outlawing unfair age-based decisions in recruitment, dismissal, promotion and training, and a recent European Court of justice ruling suggests that its provisions are already in force. In other ways, too, the government is encouraging us to work for longer.

There are now measures to postpone the age at which we can draw our pensions – state, private and occupational.

Women will have to wait until they are 65 years old before qualifying for a state pension under the phased introduction of equalised state pensions starting in 2010. The age at which we can draw our private and occupational pensions is rising too, from 50 to 55.

For public sector workers, the normal pension age for new recruits will become 65, rather than 60 Ð a change which has provoked widespread resentment and threats of industrial action from public sector unions.

Meanwhile, the government has promised to offer generous financial incentives – up to £30,000 – for people who choose to defer drawing their state pension and work an extra five years.

But this is only one part of the solution. The difficulty facing this and future governments – not only in the UK but across most of Europe Ð is in matching these financial and legal incentives with measures which preserve the health, wellbeing and productivity of an ageing workforce.

Ill health takes its toll

Although poor health and disability are not the only reasons for driving those aged 50 and over from the workplace – depleted skills, low levels of qualification, disaffection with work, generous early retirement deals and age discrimination are others – they remain the most important. One study1 found that half of people who retire early do so because of ill health.

A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recommends occupational health interventions as the solution to extending employees’ working lives. It would be wise for OH practitioners to familiarise themselves with those approaches most likely to succeed in their own organisations.

Certain health problems, including heart and blood circulation conditions, back disabilities, and chest/breathing difficulties do become more prevalent as we age. There is no doubt that we become more prone to multiple health problems as we get older. Health and Safety Executive statistics2 suggest that older age groups have higher rates of self-reported illness caused or made worse by work. For instance, 8.7% of men aged 55 to 64 reported a work-related illness in 2003-04 – twice the level reported by men aged 25 to 34.

Such statistics need careful interpretation, not least because they are based on cross-sectional surveys which measure the health status of different age groups at one point in time, rather than progressive change among individuals over the course of their lives. There is also a danger that such generalisations can be used to reinforce lazy and misplaced prejudices about age and work.

This is the conclusion of a report, commissioned by the DWP, from the Health and Safety Laboratory. It examined nine commonly held assumptions about work and age – ranging from the belief that age determines health, physical strength, cognitive capacity and productivity, through to the assumption that the older we are, the more difficult we find adapting to change.

Each was dismissed as more myth than reality. For example, the report found that older workers show lower levels of short-term/ non-certified absence Ð the type that most worries employers – than their younger colleagues.

But, more importantly, it found that each of the negative assumptions was false for two overlying reasons. First because such generalised assumptions hide more than they expose. So while it might be true, for example, that on average our physical and mental capacities might decline as we grow older, the variations between individuals are so great that it tells us nothing worthwhile.

A 60-year-old worker might, for example, have seen his strength decline a little from when he was 20, but he may still be much fitter and stronger than a 20 year-old employed by the same firm. The same is equally true of eyesight or hearing capacity, and how quickly people adapt to change or learn new skills. Astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth again at the age of 77, and Lord Woolf announced he was to retrain as a mediator when he stepped down as Lord Chief Justice at the age of 72, so it is about time we asked ourselves just how useful generalisations about age may be.

OH can help with changes

However, in the flurry of publications and best practice to re-educate us about ageing, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that ageing does bring changes Ð in personal and financial circumstances, in health and wellbeing, in the way we appear to others and in our attitudes to work. This is why the report may be on even stronger ground in its second reason for dismissing ageist myths. It argues that any changes or losses we suffer can be routinely accommodated by well thought-out occupational health interventions.

It is these interventions which will prove so critical in the coming years. One of the more sophisticated approaches is the ‘workability’ concept, a holistic approach which is designed to maintain productivity and motivation as we age. It has been developed over a number of years by Juhani Ilmarinen and colleagues at the Institute of Occupational Health in Finland. It accepts that our mental and physical faculties may decline with age, but that timely interventions can prolong our working lives.

What is increasingly certain is that occupational health practitioners will be at the forefront of the battle to remove the obstacles which prevent us from having longer, more productive working lives. Meeting such challenges is vital for the prosperity of Europe, and the wellbeing of its citizens.

Dr Kerry Platman specialises in management approaches and policy responses to workforce ageing. As a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, she is currently working on an international comparative study of workforce ageing in the high-tech sector


1. Humphrey et al (2003) Factors affecting the labour market participation of older workers, DWP Research Report No. 200

2. Jones et al (2005) Self-reported work-related illness in 2003/2004: Results from the Labour Force Survey


Age discrimination legislation is already illegal

Local government pension scheme members vote to strike 

The Workability model for prolonging working lives

The term was coined in Finland in the 1980s and has evolved into a holistic model to understand blocks to productivity over time. Central to the concept is a scale which asks individuals to rate their ability to meet current and future job demands. The emphasis is on designing appropriate measures to prolong our working lives.

Researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have found that where ratings of workability are low among people in their 50s, there is a high likelihood that they will retire on grounds of disability. The concept is not restricted to physical and mental fitness, though. As well as job re-design, changes in work schedules and health and wellbeing promotions, it also recognises the important of workplace training, management attitudes and state-level policy measures.

Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (1998) Work Ability Index. Helsinki: FIOH. Ilmarinen, Juhani (2001) ‘Ageing Workers’, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, August, Vol. 58, No. 8, pp. 546-552.

Outlawing age discrimination

Our age discrimination law – the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations – is due to come into force in October, and will cover recruitment, promotion, training, dismissal and retirement. Unlike the US, this age law will cover all age groups, not just those aged 40 and above. The UK law is still in draft form – the final regulations are expected sometime in the spring of 2006 – but it is intended to:

  • Offer protection against unfair age-based decisions in the workplace

  • Cover employees, contract workers, the self-employed and people looking for work

  • Allow employers or providers of vocational training to discriminate in exceptional circumstances, although these will need to be justified objectively

  • Introduce a default retirement age of 65

  • Give employees the right to request working beyond the age of 65 and place a duty on employers to consider these requests seriously

  • Retain length of service awards, including redundancy packages up to a maximum of 20 yearsÕ service

True or false? The facts about ageing and work

The Health and Safety Laboratory was commissioned to examine the supporting evidence for nine facts about ageing and work:

  1. Chronological age determines health, and age brings illness and disease

  2. Getting old is associated with loss of cognitive capacity

  3. Older workers have less physical strength and endurance

  4. Older workers tend to have poorer sensory abilities such as sight and hearing

  5. Older adults have difficulty adapting to change

  6. Older adults find it hard to learn new information, making their knowledge and skills outdated

  7. Older workers take more time off work

  8. Older workers have more accidents in the workplace

  9. Older workers are less productive

Are these true or false? The report rejects all of them as myths, since there is a huge variation between individuals. In addition, we can compensate for these declines by using our experience and redesigning our workspace.

Health and Safety Laboratory (2005) Facts and misconceptions about age, health status and employability. Report Number: HSL/2005/20

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