The number of people aged over 65 and in work is now above one million for the first time and rising, official figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed in June.
This in itself is not a huge surprise – it’s long been recognised that as the 1950s and 1960s “baby boomer” generation ages it will change the demographic of our society sharply, with the number of over-65s in the population expected to increase by some 49% to more than 16 million over the next 20 years.
Yet for the workforce and for employers this change is fully expected to bring with it significant challenges, not least health-related ones.
Earlier this month [June] too, for example, a poll for insurer Aviva and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy argued more than half of UK workers are worried they will not be up to the job physically or mentally if they have to work into old age.
The ONS figures suggested the rising number of over-65s was down to people staying on in work longer as well as more people of this age group in the population. Both the number of people in work and the employment rate for those aged 65 and over were now at their highest since comparable records began in 1992, it said.
While there will always be exceptions to the rule, in terms of health and management challenges, it’s generally recognised older workers tend by and large to take less short-term absence but when they are off, are often off for longer periods.
Older people can, of course, be less physically able than their younger counterparts, especially where a job or role is quite physically demanding, and our mental agility can deteriorate as we age.
Training and mindset
Yet, with proper training and the right mindset, none of these should be insurmountable problems for most employers to overcome.
Employers may need to recognise their workplaces will need some adjustment and they may need to be ensuring managers have proper training in how to manage and get the most from employees who may be older than them.
Moreover, they may need to accept the “future workforce” may be more likely to be carrying long-term health issues with them through their working life and their priorities around how they want to work – perhaps part-time to top up a pension pot or in a job share – may be somewhat different to those of their younger counterparts.
There is an individual responsibility agenda here, too. If we’re all going to have to accept the reality of needing to work into older age, then we in turn are going to have to accept that keeping ourselves fitter and healthier to allow us to do so will become increasingly important.
The key point for employers, as Chris Jessop, managing director (UK and Europe) at AXA PPP healthcare’s health services division, has argued is to recognise the ageing of our workforce is not just a headache, it also presents opportunities for those willing to grasp them.
“In one respect it’s good news – experienced workers can continue to add value, potentially playing an important mentoring role to less experienced colleagues. But on the other hand, there is the issue of health, as it’s understood that our health deteriorates as we age, which can result in higher worker absence rates via sick leave,” he concedes.
“With this in mind, businesses have a vested interest to take a proactive approach to their workers’ health. Health deterioration can then be drastically reduced. As we grow older, associated health issues are reported to be a combination of the effects of genetics (25%) and lifestyle and environment (75%). So this implies that if we manage our lifestyles appropriately, there is in theory no reason that for most of us, we can’t be as productive and energetic in our 70s and 80s as we are when we are younger,” he adds.