Working Transitions

5 Minutes with Andrew Secker | The Ageing Workforce

In today’s terms, 50 is far from old -  with people living longer, more active lives. With the advent of pension changes also, many people will need to work well into their late 60’s. There is usually at least 15 years of working life left once we hit 50, if not longer – plenty of time to make an impact!

We asked Andrew Secker, who heads up Mills & Reeve’s London employment practice to tell us more:

ANDREW, HOW IS THE MAKE-UP OF THE WORKFORCE CHANGING?

Before I answer your question I think it’s important to be clear - what we are talking about here is an opportunity for forward thinking employers to get ahead - or perhaps risk getting left behind.

The proportion of the UK workforce falling into the traditional working age of 16 to 64 has been stable for a long time - for at least the last 40 or so years. But that is going to change - the UK workforce is already getting older and will continue to do so in the years ahead. 

At the same time, the declining birth rate means it’s not possible to replace all of those leaving the labour market.  When you factor in the predicted post-brexit labour shortages alongside the perennial skills and productivity gap, I think employers will find themselves increasingly reliant on retaining and attracting an older workforce.

With change on the horizon, it is absolutely an essential time to get ahead and get your workforce strategy in place.

WHY IS NOW SUCH A CRITICAL TIME?

To some extent we’ve yet to see the true impact of the repeal of the default retirement age in 2011 - the right for employers to retire employees at 65. Many older workers have continued to retire at or around 65 because, whilst the law may have changed, their retirement is something they have been planning for decades.  

Attitudes to work, age and retirement are, however, changing. In part this is because of demographic changes, but it’s also because of other developments. For example you can now take your pension whilst continuing to work.  We have seen the death of the final salary pension scheme, so people are often really concerned about financial wellbeing in their older age. We have also seen the rise of Grandparents taking on child care responsibility and being interested in working flexibly during the later stage of their career. 

All of these factors feed into the changes to the needs and the demands we hear from older worker. My feel is that the major shift predicted in the working age of employees is on the near horizon. 

Now is precisely the right time to be looking at this - and taking it seriously. 

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF AN AGEING WORKFORCE?

Very simply, employers will need to re-visit how they recruit, retain and re-train workers to cater for the fact that the age profile of their workforce is going to be changing. They also need to equip managers to support, challenge and manage staff of all ages.

WHAT BARRIERS EXIST?

I personally think there are three key barriers to be overcome.

Firstly, there is still too much age-related stereotyping in the workplace. I don’t just mean, for example, views that older workers struggle with new technology or new ways of working. I mean the generalised profiling from research that has been published around Baby Boomers, Gen X or Y or millennials. The stereotypes expounded by this research seems to be quite readily accepted as applicable to all people who happen to be born in a particular age range. It is really important to ensure these stereotypes do not affect how you manage a workforce because they may not be reflective of the actual people in your business. 

Secondly, there has been an over-concern that an employer must treat all employees equally to stay within the bounds of our anti-discrimination laws. I apologise here on behalf of the legal community if we have been partly responsible for this!

Whilst it’s important to treat people equally, setting the same performance targets for young and older workers does not necessarily avoid indirect discrimination. To avoid this over-balance, it is likely that employers will have to look at whether, in order to treat people fairly as well as equally, they should treat age groups differently. 

Thirdly, but linked to this, one of the ways employers can attract and retain older workers is to embed flexible working for all ages. An increase in flexible working and changes in traditional ways of operating will inevitably prove a challenge - but I see this as an opportunity to grab a competitive advantage.

WHAT ARE THE FIRST STEPS TO SUPPORTING AN AGEING WORKFORCE?

There is some great research online, particularly from ACAS, on the management of older workers and the challenges of an ageing workforce.

For me, the first step I would take is to sell a business case into senior management and get buy-in to what will be a major project that revisits job design and workforce strategies. You’ve got to work out what your selling point is internally. Are you saying that the reason you should be looking at this is because of a labour force shortage? Or is it because of problems with succession planning or productivity?

Once you have the buy-in, it is important to look at the tools you could flex or incorporate into your workforce management to address the change in the workforce demographic or to remove barriers to better age management. 

WHAT LEGAL IMPLICATIONS DO YOU NEED TO BE AWARE OF?

The law surrounding age discrimination can be complex. Employers need to be aware that the way they recruit, retain, manage and exit staff could directly or indirectly discriminate against staff of a particular age. 

The more difficult areas tend to be where it is felt necessary to implement measures to support or tackle issues faced by workers of a particular age - perhaps looking at transferring skills or knowledge from older workers to younger employees. This is one scenario where you will inevitably end up treating one group differently from others. Employers may feel reluctant to tackle this issue for fear of directly discriminating against people. 

The second difficult area is intersectionality. This is where you have an individual who has got more than one protected characteristic covered by our equality laws. For example, a case where a person is older than their peers but also disabled or female and going through menopause at work, feels that they are unfairly treated because of all of their characteristics (and not just their age). These cases are quite difficult to manage and do need quite a lot of thought and careful consideration when devising your strategies.

To find out more join our unique webinar - supporting an Ageing Workforce.  Hosted by Working Transitions
and Mills & Reeve, this bite-sized event explores this hugely significant topic from the legal and people management perspective.  Sign up here

 

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Author
Working Transitions
Date
18 April 2019
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