Fulfilling work is essential to supporting older workers

New research from the Centre for Ageing Better says understanding what people want and value from work can help them to stay in work for longer. Senior programme manager Patrick Thomson looks at the evidence.

Our workforce, like our population, is getting older. By 2020, one in three workers will be aged over 50. As a society, we need to work for longer, and there is a growing acceptance that the way we think about work and retirement will be very different from that of our parents and grandparents.

With the state pension age rising, many people are seeing the financial necessity of working for longer. We know that delaying retirement and remaining in paid work has huge benefits in terms of financial security for later life. This is particularly important for the estimated 12 million people currently heading towards an insufficient retirement income (DWP, 2014).

The health benefits that good work can bring have been widely evidenced, most recently by the Chief Medical Officer’s annual report (DWP, 2016), which shows that good work can contribute to self-esteem, wellbeing and cognitive benefits. There are many social benefits as well. When the Centre for Ageing Better asked retired people what they most missed about work, the most frequent answer was the social connections (Centre for Ageing Better, 2015).

So, many people want and need to work for reasons to do with money, health, and social connections. But is that enough? It is one thing working for longer in a job you value, but quite another when you don’t find work a positive experience, or, even worse, you’re in a job that may be damaging your health and wellbeing. For work to be sustainable as many of us work for longer, it must also be fulfilling. This matters not just for individuals, but also for organisations and HR managers looking to hold on to experienced workers.

Fulfilling work means different things to different people. Last year, the Centre for Ageing Better took part in deliberative workshops with people over the age of 50, talking about all aspects of ageing, including work (Ipsos MORI/Centre for Better Ageing, 2016). What was striking was that many people in their 50s spoke wistfully about looking forward to an abstract retirement that felt a long way off. When the groups discussed this further, they found that it wasn’t so much a desire to retire as it was a dissatisfaction with current aspects of their working life.

People didn’t necessarily want to retire early, but they did want to have a better balance between work, home life and other priorities. Many said that they wanted to do things differently in the latter part of their working years.

For some, this was about changing to something completely different that they had always wanted to do, while for others it was about scaling back to spend more time with loved ones. And some wanted to take on more responsibility to use the experience that they had gathered over a lifetime of work. While most had accepted that they would need to work for longer, few had considered how to change things to make that work more fulfilling.

That is why the Centre for Ageing Better has commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies to review what existing evidence can tell us about fulfilling work – what people value from work and why these things are important.

What does the evidence tell us about supporting older workers?

People’s working lives are varied and there is no one-size-fits-all definition – and in most ways, good management and working conditions for older workers are no different than for any other employee. Nothing magically changes at 50, but our project showed three key aspects related to age and life history that determine different priorities and requirements for older workers.

  1. The nature of the work itself can be fulfilling to individuals

Older workers look for employment that is personally meaningful to them. This can be work that is enjoyable, helps contribute to their personal identity or makes a difference to the lives of other people. They also look for roles and tasks that are interesting, challenging, stretch them and fully use their skills and experience. Many have built up considerable experience, and using and sharing this can add to fulfilment at work.

Autonomy is important – having control over their own tasks, the order they do them in and the methods they use to complete their work. This also relates to flexibility in choosing location of work. Older workers appreciate being able to influence the wider organisation by having the opportunity to make suggestions about change, and have these taken seriously.

Research by the Centre for Ageing Better, along with evidence uncovered in this project, shows that for many older workers one of the main benefits of working in later life is the opportunity to make and maintain social connections.

Compared to younger employees, older workers may place greater importance on being part of the “social fabric” of their company, and it remains the aspect that individuals miss most once they retire. They enjoy work that enables them to bond with colleagues and build relationships, as this helps to maintain their social networks.

  1. Organisational culture is important

Evidence shows that, for many, beliefs and values tend to crystallise as we age, so if older workers feel that the philosophy of their employer does not fit well enough with their own beliefs, they may move into self-employment or leave work altogether.

Employers can do a lot to help foster a culture of an age-friendly workplace. They can tackle discrimination at all levels, by providing training and other support to tackle age-related discrimination to all managers and recruiters. Without this, they risk missing invaluable skills and experience of great value to their organisation.

Employers need to visibly show that age is treated as seriously as other protected characteristics such as race, gender, and disability. Where age combines with other characteristics, employers need to recognise and tackle any problems. For example, older women may be disproportionately subject to inappropriate treatment from colleagues, line managers and customers.

Older workers also want opportunities to coach, train, and mentor younger staff. It makes them feel valued, publicly recognises their skills, and protects against loss of corporate memory and tacit knowledge.

There are clear benefits from mixed-aged workforces. They bring together different perspectives, better knowledge transfer, effective talent management, innovation and problem solving. However, some older workers feel that managers need more support to foster good relationships between them and younger workers.

  1. Flexible, supportive workplace practices can maximise fulfilling work

There are practical steps that employers can take to make their workplace more age-friendly and ensure they are supporting older workers, by allowing more to have fulfilling and productive work. Crucially, there are also negative practices they can avoid if they want to help retain staff in fulfilling work for longer.

Health is the most prominent factor affecting older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, even before job satisfaction. While it’s important to remember that many people remain healthy well into later life, poor health can be one of the biggest reasons for older workers leaving.

Helping older people to manage and accommodate long-term conditions, chronic health problems and disabilities is essential to make work viable and satisfying. Good occupational health provision and workplace adaptations can support older staff by making it easier to balance health conditions and work.

People over the age of 50 are also increasingly likely to have caring responsibilities, for family members and others. Having a workplace that supports flexibility is essential for working carers. Explicitly encouraging flexible working requests and handling them fairly will establish greater commitment from older workers and reassure them that their employer will manage their support needs effectively.

Employers should operate flexible working times and allocate shifts that meet individual needs. Line manager understanding and willingness to allow older workers to leave the workplace at short notice is important to offer the practical support that carers need. Those who have access to comprehensive support to help them care find it easier to strike a balance, are more loyal to their employer and are more likely to remain in work. Fulfilling work isn’t an extra – it is essential to longer working lives.

The Centre for Ageing Better is working in partnership with the Business in the Community Age at Work campaign and the Government’s new Older Worker Business Champion. Together with employers, Government and supporting organisations, we want to bring about major changes to create age-friendly workplaces. Not only to help people to work for longer, but to make sure that this work is fulfilling, allowing more people to enjoy a good later life.

Patrick Thomson is senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better.


Centre for Ageing Better. “Later Life in 2015 – a data briefing”.

Department for Work and Pensions (2014). “Fuller working lives”. 13 June 2014.

Department for Work and Pensions (2016). “CMO annual report 2015: health of the ‘baby boomer’ generation”. 8 December 2016.

Ipsos MORI/Centre for Better Ageing (2016). “Findings for deliberative workshops. Topic: I am in work”.

Platts LG, Corna LM, Worts D, McDonough P, Price D and Glaser K (2016). “Do people return to work after retiring in the UK?”. Presented at the Wellbeing, Health, Retirement and the Lifecourse project (WHERL) event to disseminate current research findings. 13 April 2016.

One Response to Fulfilling work is essential to supporting older workers

  1. Avatar
    Peter Stark 11 Dec 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    The attitude of more senior workers towards this attitude is very interesting, especially if we consider the point that many people may struggle to feel fulfilled by their day to day job due to already developed cognitive illness. The Government and charities should work better with companies such as http://www.cambridgecognition.com to better understand cognition in senior members of staff as well and use the research and services in order to tailor tasks and working environments so senior members of the workforce still take something out of their day.

Leave a Reply