End of retirement age means more dignified workplaces for older workers

Far from removing the right of older workers to retire with dignity, Dr Matt Flynn believes that the abolition of the default retirement age (DRA) and the resultant focus on performance management will result in a more sympathetic workplace for the over-65s.

At the end of last month, the last people eligible to be retired under the DRA turned 65. Now that it has been abolished, employers must treat workers over 65 the same as their younger colleagues: dismissals can only be made for reasons of performance, conduct or redundancy.

Many employers avoid performance managing older employees. In fact, the CBI argued that removing mandatory retirement would force employers to dismiss older employees on performance grounds, thereby taking away the right to “retire with dignity”. The Federation of Small Businesses said that its members feared litigation from under-performing older workers who are let go.

Dr Matt Flynn

Dr Matt Flynn, reader in human resources management, Middlesex University.

However, performance management does not directly equate to dismissal. It is a process through which the manager sets goals for the employee and looks for ways in which to support the employee in reaching those goals. Managers and older workers who avoid discussions about performance also miss the chance to identify ways to improve performance and motivation.

On the surface, abolition of the DRA should only directly affect a small number of workers. Few British workers want to work beyond 65. However, the number of people staying in work past 65 is rising. In fact, it is the one age group whose numbers increased during the 2008-10 recession.

Further, changes to state and occupational pension rules will make it necessary for people to delay retirement. The Government wants to raise the state pension age to 66 by 2020 (and possibly even raise it to 67 by 2026), and this was one of the reasons for abolition of the DRA: it is simply unfair to have a state pension of 66 with employers mandatorily retiring workers at the age of 65.

More importantly, the abolition of mandatory retirement was intended to change the culture in which older workers have been managed. In being able to use mandatory retirement, many employers overlooked the support that older workers need in order to stay productive and engaged in work. Relatively modest workplace adjustments, skills refreshment and opportunities to work flexibly can significantly benefit both older workers and their employers.

However, such interventions are difficult for managers to justify for workers who are seen to be “running out the clock.” Abolition of mandatory retirement should encourage employers to better manage their older workers.

My colleagues and I, at Middlesex University and in Hong Kong, are now working with the Employers’ Network on Equality and Inclusion and Community Business in trying to turn the performance management process on its head.

Rather than seeing it as a negative, we are looking at ways in which conversations about performance could lead managers and older workers to identify and overcome barriers which older workers face when staying in work. Older workers may have the capacity to use their experience, knowledge, social networks and abilities to make work rewarding. Their managers can support them by discussing any problems they might face (such as lack of training and long working hours) and how those problems could be overcome. Keeping older workers engaged is not only good for them, but good for their employers who benefit from skills retention and better productivity.

Abolition of mandatory retirement was a major victory for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), trades unions and age charities. It is one of the few policies on which the present coalition and previous Labour Governments agreed. It should lead to managers considering the workplace needs of their older workers (which will be good for older workers) and considering ways to better use their skills and experience (which will be good for business). It should also create more dignified workplaces for older workers.

Dr Matt Flynn is a reader in human resources management at Middlesex University. Dr Flynn has recently updated the CIPD and TUC guide “Managing age”, based on his earlier guidance written for both organisations when he was based at the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce. View his Facebook page here.

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