Over the last 20 years, the number of people working past the traditional retirement age has increased substantially. Today, over 10% of all over 65s are still in paid employment.

Debate has grown over why this is the case, and it seems both supply and demand factors are likely to be at play – money and the social aspects of work on the supply side, labour shortages on the demand side.

However, demand is falling short. The report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee published in July suggested that there is scope for both employers and the Government to create opportunities for people to work longer. Age UK analysis of working patterns supports the idea that the labour market hasn’t become any better for older workers since the 2008 recession.

The fact remains there are more older workers than ever before, and demand is likely to increase further owing to Brexit and other labour market factors. Workplace health, and the quality of that work, will rise to the top of many agendas.

The industrial strategy

With more people wanting or needing to work, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that jobs are of good quality.

The Industrial Strategy identifies five factors that determine work quality:

  • overall worker satisfaction
  • good pay
  • participation and progression
  • wellbeing, safety and security
  • voice and autonomy.

While these are not exhaustive, as work interacts with our mental and physical health in a multitude of ways, they’re not a bad starting point. The sad reality is that many workers do not have access to work of this quality, which has a knock-on effect on their health. 

It is also clear that being unemployed can be better for your health than having a poor-quality job. This is a damning indictment on many UK workplaces.

Good work for older workers

Research by the Institute of Employment Studies and the Centre for Ageing Better finds that, give or take, older workers place the same value on the attributes of ‘good work’ as younger workers.

There are some slight differences, but broadly speaking the over 50s value a world of work without age discrimination, where they are free to pursue their careers, wind down to retirement, and take part in development opportunities – as appropriate – without being judged or disadvantaged because of their age.

However, we are a long way from this ideal scenario. At Age UK, we hear regularly from people who have struggled to keep working, even when they are fit, healthy, skilled and willing, because managers hold outdated stereotypes about their abilities.

The great divide – being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of work

At no time in the employment cycle is this truer than at the point of recruitment. There is strong academic evidence that older jobseekers – the out of work – are regularly passed over for no other reason than their age. This is difficult to prove legally, meaning that there’s no practical recourse for such discrimination. Alongside the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, Age UK have written a guide to age-friendly recruitment.

It’s not always easy for those in work either – particularly when on a low income. Age UK published research based on interviews with low-paid workers in their early 50s, often with health conditions, which laid bare just how difficult sustaining work can be. With the state pension age rising (to 67 in the mid-2020s), improving both personal development opportunities (especially training) and job quality are essential.

Flexibility

One way to improve the quality of low-paid jobs is by increasing the amount of ‘employee-friendly’ flexible work available. While flexibility is valued by people of all ages, the over 50s often have additional reasons to want it – they are more likely to be carers, be winding down to retirement, or be managing a health condition themselves.

Our recent publication, A means to many ends, shows just how valuable flexibility can be for both employee and employer when used properly – although it can also be all too scarce, especially for people in lower-paid roles. Improving access for such workers should be a policy priority, and Age UK is pleased to be a member of the Flexible Working Taskforce set up by the government in response to the Taylor Review.

Jobs fit for the future

The evidence on whether working longer is good or bad for your health is mixed. However, one thing is for sure – increasing numbers of people will need or want to work for longer, and so being in good health is important for individuals and employers.

As our research with low-paid workers in their early 50s makes clear, health and work are closely linked. To improve workforce health, employers need to stop simply paying lip-service to job quality. The government needs to ensure that minimum standards of pay and security are sufficiently high, as well as enforcement of other aspects like access to flexible working.

Creating good jobs and supporting the ageing workforce are an integral part of ensuring the future success of the UK economy. Tackling discrimination and allowing people to pursue their career dreams – yes, retired people still have these – should go hand-in-hand with promoting good health and helping people work for longer, wherever the need arises.

Christopher Brooks (@crbrooks222) is Senior Policy Manager at Age UK

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