16 Sept 2019 By Alison Maitland
One news item that briefly stole headlines from Brexit in the UK during August was a proposal for the state pension age to be increased from 65 to 75 within 15 years. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank headed by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, said this would ensure the ‘benefit’ of a state pension continued.
The proposal, which caused alarm in many quarters, set me thinking again about this whole issue. Policies on ageing, retirement and pensions must be imaginative, fit for the future workforce, and sensitive to differences between people. What responses are within our grasp, as employers and individuals?
Many of us are already working longer than our parents did, with 16% of men and 11% of women still working at 70. The ‘end of retirement’ debate has been around for a few years. Young people know they have to manage a long working life, and are adapting.
But this takes time, and changes must be fair. A one-size-fits-all response in the form of another sudden, sharp increase in state pension age is unhelpful and unfair.
For one thing, the increase in life expectancy stalled between 2015 and 2017, according to the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics. Average life expectancy at birth is currently 79 for men and 83 for women. There’s a possibility it will not increase further, or not at the steady rate seen in recent decades.
Secondly, living longer is not the same as being healthy enough to work longer. Healthy life expectancy is much shorter than life expectancy: just under 64 for women and just over 63 for men. Currently, most years of disability happen after retirement. That would not be the case if the pension age goes on rising. Many people would simply be unable to keep working.
That links to my third point, that people’s ability to work longer depends very much on their profession. Those with physically demanding jobs, such as caregiving, fire-fighting, building, plumbing, or couriering, are often worn out by their late 50s or early 60s. Lawyers, accountants, bankers, software developers and other ‘knowledge’ workers are far less likely to have their work lives cut short by work-related disability. And as their memories lapse, they can quickly turn to the ubiquitous internet search function.
Fourthly, life expectancy varies across regions, with some doing worse than others. And the UK is far from a frontrunner on life expectancy. In fact it has a lower average life expectancy than many other advanced economies such as Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Singapore, and New Zealand.
Tackling as complex a societal issue as this requires collective solutions, co-designed by the different parties involved working together – government, employers, workers, health experts, and educationalists.
What organisations can do
Employers can make it easier for people to work on into what have conventionally been retirement years. To understand how, it helps to look at why people want to do so. In Britain, a quarter of people who ‘retire’ are now returning to work within five years. While that may be to boost their income, there are other reasons why fit older people want to keep working. It’s also about stimulation, connection, purpose, and having enough energy to keep contributing.
A survey by Next-Up, a business advising people on post-retirement careers, found that about two thirds of retired and non-retired people over 55 want to ‘feel useful and relevant’, and this is more important than status or money.
To enable longer working lives to be a good experience, employers can:
- Remember that age does not define people, and that each person is individual and unique.
- Build in career breaks and other time for employees to learn new skills and occupations.
- Think far more flexibly about how people work. A long working life is more likely to be sustainable for people who have not toiled flat out five days a week for 40 or 50 years. Giving people control over their schedules as far as possible is something that many older andyounger workers are looking for.
- Counter negative stereotypes about older workers and educate managers in the benefits of a mixed age workforce.
- Make the language in job adverts inclusive of older applicants. Words like ‘hungry’ and ‘energetic’ may send the message that only young people need apply.
- Provide training and development, regardless of age.
- Offer opportunities to mentor younger colleagues and to pass on skills and knowledge.
- Make workplace adjustments to accommodate people as they age – for example, stronger reading lights, regular health checks, and exercise classes.
To be fair, the CSJ report does recommend some of these, including flexible working, health interventions and workplace adjustments. But it does not make clear how such measures would be implemented, or how the authorities would ensure they were in place. By contrast, there would be nothing voluntary about an increase in state pension age to 75.
What individuals can do
People who work into their 80s and 90s usually do so because they love what they do. It gives them a sense of purpose.
- Assuming you are fit and able to work, ask yourself what really motivates you? If it’s not your current job, consider if you can build a new career doing something you love or care deeply about.
- Be prepared to redefine yourself over your working life as you change careers. View this as a strength and evidence that you are a lifelong learner with transferable skills.
- Keep as fit as possible, and pay heed to physical or mental stress. Don’t leave these until they affect your work, or burn you out.
- Seek out work that gives you the autonomy you want and need.
- Take sabbaticals if they are on offer, and build career breaks into your financial and career planning. You will need time to recharge and reconnect with what matters most – and to learn new skills.
- Be aware that ageing has advantages as well as disadvantages. Caring less about what other people think of you and the choices you make is one of the benefits!
This is an edited version of a column published by IWE on 15 Sept 2019
©Alison Maitland 2019, all rights reserved