No rush to retire older workers

There, in the TV studio the same morning as me recently, was Dame Carol Black, launching her report, Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, looking fit, as you would expect of a post-retirement age long-distance walker and runner.

Black rightly argues that keeping people in work is infinitely better for their health than a sick-note culture that ingrains incapacity. However, on present trends, by 2050 life expectancy for men born after 1985 will be 93. And while not everyone agrees that working longer would be part of the solution to the problem of funding their pensions, it does highlight the fact that health and fitness is now undeniably a business issue. For skills scarsities make it all the more important that older people don’t become a massive wasted resource: without them, our organisations will suffer.

Mutual benefits

This is perhaps better understood in the Scandinavian countries. In the building department of the city of Helsinki, for instance, one of the measures introduced involves a ‘health guarantee’. The worker promises to follow a healthy lifestyle, while the employer promises to facilitate this with high-quality medical care, no waiting lists, regular health checks and support for sporting activities. Excessive social drinking is discouraged, smoking has been virtually eradicated, and all workers have a specific plan and understanding with the occupational health physician to engage in regular physical exercise. As a result, retirement ages are rising, sickness leave declining dramatically.

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In the Swedish power company Vattenfall people are encouraged to work beyond their expected dates of retirement.

Nils Friberg, a senior HR consultant with Vatenfall, told me: “A few years ago, we would have been telling them to prepare for retirement, but today we are saying, ‘We need you to stay to 65’.”

Such a message from a senior manager can have a transforming effect, though not in isolation.

One Scandinavian example involves a flexible hours-reduction system, whereby a manager can allow an older worker to drop to 80% of normal working time on 90% of pay with pension entitlement safeguarded at 100%. The arrangement can be for a limited period to help deal with life-changing events such as the birth of a grandchild or illness of a relative, or to facilitate changes in lifestyle, learning, etc.

Invest in older people

The point that I take from such examples is how far it is possible to prolong working lives if employers invest in their people.

Getting people to take their own health and fitness seriously is surely worth a few subsidies such as sponsored gym membership.

I sometimes feel that the UK HR profession has missed the point. Perhaps we stress the even-handed, ‘treat everyone the same’ sort of approach a bit too often. While recognising people’s differences may be a more subtle and relevant model to follow, in truth, both views need to go hand-in-hand. Equality of opportunity, after all, is about recognising barriers and acting to offset disadvantages.

At an Acas seminar recently this point came home to me, when someone asked whether my examples of proactive measures to manage age would breach the age discrimination regulations. The regulations were not meant to prevent enlightened approaches to extend working lives – they allow for proportionate means to be used to achieve legitimate ends.

‘Innovate or die’, we are told, and organisations that fail to retain the knowledge and skills of older workers are courting self-harm. But good age-management practices are not a quick fix. And the damage caused when scarce knowledge puts its feet up and dons its slippers to read the newspaper will take a long time to repair.

Win an award for your positive commitment to your workers over-50

 For the first time TAEN and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are collaborating in an innovative international award for employers with the best policies for older workers.

Details on how to apply are available here
Deadline for applications: 1 May 2008. 


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