Redefining old age

Ambitious, positive and tech-savvy are not words that the human resources press is used to attaching to older workers, but according to a recent study of 1,000 people aged over 50 this is exactly what they are.

Research from the Department for Work and Pensions released last week found that close to a third of over 65s have more life goals than they did in their thirties nearly two-thirds (61%) of over 50s claim they are happier than they have ever been, while 37% use e-mail daily.

But are the upbeat self-perceptions that many mature workers expressed reflected in how they are viewed by employers?

At the Employers Forum for Age, chief executive Sam Mercer says the picture varies from sector to sector. In traditionally young industries like media and advertising where older people are in a minority, she says progress on chipping away at age discrimination had been slow. But in the retail and banking sectors “much more work has been done around promoting the value of older workers”.

But even though Mercer reports that around 200 age discrimination claims are now going to a tribunal each month, a year after age discrimination rules came into force, real progress is being made in the workplace – especially in the area of retirement. She points to more research, this time from employment law firm Eversheds, which in a survey of 150 HR professionals found that from 246 requests made by employees to work beyond the default retirement age, only 19 were turned down.

It also found that 30% of companies have now done away with a set retirement age.

“The increasing number of employers who can manage without it, undermines the argument for a default retirement age where it still exists,” she adds.

At telecoms company BT, policy and people manager Becky Mason has recently been recognised by the EFA for her work in establishing a flexible approach to retirement. BT removed the retirement clause from employee contracts in October last year and now offers workers continuous employment up until the point where there is a performance issue.

To successfully run a company without a set retirement age requires investment in performance management procedures as well as initiatives that encourage workers to plan their career.

“We are building up a number of tools and information sources that help people think about when they want to stop working. It’s a complete culture change for the organisation and people need help with making these decisions,” Mason says.

But cutting out discrimination through scrapping default retirement ages and omitting ageist terminology from recruitment ads is only really the start of a journey that will see progressive organisations ask more sophisticated questions about what age in the workplace means today, says Chris Ball, chief executive at charity The Age and Employment Network.

The importance of diversity in the workplace and how retaining older workers helps with knowledge and skills retention are the bigger questions.

“Organisations should be asking themselves to what extent they attempt to understand risk along an age continuum,” adds Ball.

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