Workers unenthusiastic about ‘Active Ageing’

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Legislation aimed at delaying retirement is seen as having little impact, as employees push for an early exit from the labour market while companies continue to lay off older staff.

A special session on active ageing, held in the framework of the annual Employment Week on 6 June 2007, asked whether active ageing is the only response to demographic change and whether it can work for both companies and employees.

The speakers at the session pointed out that citizens cannot be obliged to work and argued that the recently introduced national anti-age discrimination legislations will lead to phenomena of the lowest common denominator, with companies only striving to comply with law. 

“Active ageing is not the only response to demographic change, but it is an important part of the response,” said Professor John Philpott, chief economist at CIPD, the professional body for those involved in the management and development of people. “And it can work for both companies and employees, if we can make the case for it,” he added.

To overcome employers’ reluctance with regards to increasing the activity rates of older people, Philpott explained: “As early retirement is still a common aspiration of workers, a strong active-ageing lobby is need to overcome this desire. In addition, not only the positive, but also the negative aspects of early retirement, such as likelihood of lower than expected income due to longer retirement periods, need to be explained to employers,” said Philpott. 

He also highlighted the need to take into account and to find remedies for older workers’ often-low job satisfaction and unhappiness, caused by the necessity to work, inflexible working hours, work-related pressure or ill health. Selling the case for active ageing for employees “depends crucially upon what happens in the workplace, especially with regards to flexible working, occupational health provision and training opportunities”.

With regards employers, “companies need to overcome the myths about the employability of older people, their absence records, health, trainability and productivity”, Philpott added, for example by investing in training for older people, “in the era of faster depreciation of skills, we need to challenge the conventional view that it is ‘not worth’ investing in teaching older people new skills”. He also recommended highlighting the advantages of employing older staff in a society in which consumers are older, too.

“We definitely need to avoid the risk of companies striving only to comply with anti-age discrimination law,” concluded Philpott, warning against active-ageing policies becoming a mere ‘tick box’ exercise.

"Legislation [on anti-age discrimination] is necessary, but not sufficient basis for encouraging active ageing. We need to look at working conditions, flexibility of working hours and give older people incentives, not only financial, to keep them in employment. In the end, it is about individual choices as we cannot force people to work," said Dr Elizabeth Mestheneous, vice-president of the European Older People's Platform (AGE).

Mirko Sporket, researcher at the Institute of Gerontology (Germany), presented examples of good practice with regards policies in favour of participation in employment and the productivity of the ageing workforce. Good practice consists of "measures that combat age barriers and promote age diversity", he said listing actions and policies concerning career development, re-employment, employment exit and transition to pension as examples. 

According to Sporket, several case studies sho that companies' measures to encourage active ageing have proven successful. "Overall, the different measures have led to benefits for employees in terms of stabilisation of their work situation and increase of employability and to employers in terms of increase in productivity and competitiveness. Thanks to the measures taken, the companies have even observed enhanced innovation capacity," said Sporket, adding that companies do have a business case to retain knowledge. In addition, "ageing has become a corporate culture and a social responsibility issue".

For business positions  on ageing, see EURACTIV.com's article on the discussion held during the European Business Summit in March 2007.

"The key policy challenge with ageing is to keep the support ratio [number of people of working age per person over age of 65] bearable by increasing the number of supporters," said Professor John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). "With regards the recently introduced anti-age discrimination legislation [in the UK], it has not shown any significant observable impact as yet," he added.

"Increasing fertility rates, immigration, lifetime savings or state pension age can eventually help to remedy the situation but there is always a but in there: short-run effect on young age dependency ratio, immigrants age too, saving more could hinder economic growth and higher pension age won't solve the low activity problem," listed Philpott. "Therefore, increasing activity rates could help, as long as employer and social reluctance is overcome and the positive case for active ageing made for both employers and employees," added Philpott. 

"People are living healthier and longer lives, and the question is what they can do for 20 years after retirement. We need to empower people to invent new models to organise their lives differently and find the right life balance," said Harry Gray, director of the NW Emeritus College

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) lists a number measures for strategies for an ageing population: governments should develop active labour market policies to aid the integration of older workers by, for example, providing easy access to lifelong learning and through the improvement of labour market services; age-awareness training should be introduced for human-resource personnel, managers and other key staff; measures such as flexible hours and career leave should be extended; older workers themselves should be involved in discussions about age barriers and how to overcome them; trade unions should include in collective agreements recruitment and training measures; greater sharing of knowledge and expertise on the relationship between age and employment and the implementation of good practice should be encouraged. 

The foundation's website hosts a number of case studies on employment initiatives for an ageing workforce in Europe.

For the World Health Organization (WHO) active ageing is "the process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age. If ageing is to be a positive experience, longer life must be accompanied by continuing opportunities for health, participation and security," argues the WHO.

As Europeans live longer and have fewer babies, Europe is facing a challenge of 'demographic ageing'. This will have serious implications for the economy, as fewer working people will support the costs of pensions and healthcare of those who have retired. 

The need for effective policies to promote opportunities for an ageing workforce has thus become increasingly relevant. In this regard, 'active ageing' is currently being discussed as one of the ways to keep the support ratio (the number of people of working age per person over the age of 65) bearable, by increasing the number of supporters. 

The concept of active ageing refers to the idea of remaining active as we age by working longer, retiring later, engaging in voluntary work after retirement and practicing healthy-ageing lifestyles. 

The EU has set itself two goals for 2010 with regards active ageing. The Stockholm Target (2001) aims to increase the average EU employment rate among people aged 55-64 years to 50%, and the Barcelona Target (2002) seeks a progressive increase of five years in the effective average age at which people stop working, thus delaying exits from the labour force at mature ages.  

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