In the figures for September 2023, the total Job Market (employed + unemployed) was 34,346,000.
This does not include economically inactive people (those not in work or looking for work due to being a student, carer, sick, discouraged from work (believing there are no jobs available), declaring themselves retired or ‘other.
In the reporting period May to July 2023, the number of vacancies was 1.02 million.
The labour market broken down by age group:
Age Group Labour market
The current data shows that there are currently 11.6 million people in the labour market that are over the age of 50, equating to 33.77%.
The latest set of figures from the ONS (May to Jul 2023) “Economically Inactive – Doesn’t Want a Job” in people aged 16-64, 1.055m people regarded themselves as ‘retired’. This is slowly creeping down since its peak in in the period Dec’21 to Feb’22 which was then 1.179m.
Bringing the data together, there are 33.34m people in the labour market and a further 1.05 million people that are of employment age that choose not to work and regard themselves as retired.
A BBC report highlighted that over one million people, mostly in their 50s, left work and took early retirement since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak which led to the government considering how they could coax retired middle-aged workers back into jobs.
There are a range of issues with recruitment at present which means that it is not as easy as to say that we should encourage the economically inactive to return to the workforce. Skills shortages and a mismatch of skills available versus skills required means that the difficulty with recruiting the right people will not be solved this way.
It is important to recognise that many individuals who have already taken the path of retirement are unlikely to embark on a new career and invest time and energy into acquiring new skills. Therefore, an alternative and more sustainable approach is needed—one that focuses on preventing individuals from leaving the labour market prematurely.
In this article, I am going to explore the benefits of retaining older workers in the labour market. I will look at the wealth of experience and tacit knowledge that they possess, and I will acknowledge employer’s concerns about declining health and increasing costs associated with employing older workers and ways that this can be minimised.
The Benefits of Retaining Older Workers
Tapping into Tacit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge is a concept that was first introduced by philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi in the mid-20th century. It refers to the knowledge that is deeply ingrained in an individual's mind and is often difficult to articulate, codify, or transfer to others in a formal or systematic way. Unlike explicit knowledge, which can be documented, written down, or easily communicated, tacit knowledge is typically acquired through personal experiences, intuition, practice, and is deeply rooted in an individual's background and context.
Tacit knowledge is often so ingrained that individuals may not even be aware of possessing it. They perform tasks or make decisions based on this knowledge almost instinctively.
Trying to explain or articulate tacit knowledge can be challenging. For instance, a highly skilled craftsman may not be able to describe all the nuances and subtleties of their work in words, but they can demonstrate it through their actions.
It is often gained through experience, practice, and observation over time. For instance, a seasoned customer service representative may have a deep understanding of how to handle various customer situations effectively, which is not explicitly written in any training manual.
Tacit knowledge often underlies the ability to make complex judgments and decisions. It can be a source of innovation and creativity. In organisations, recognising and leveraging tacit knowledge is important for capturing the expertise of experienced employees, encouraging mentorship and knowledge transfer, and creating an innovative environment where the organisation can achieve a competitive advantage.
Consistency and Reliability
The value of reliability and consistency cannot be overstated. One of the defining characteristics of older workers is the extensive experience they bring to the table. Over decades of employment, they have encountered a plethora of challenges and scenarios, honing their ability to navigate complex situations with poise and grace.
Older workers have faced the ups and downs of economic cycles, weathered organisational changes, and adapted to evolving technologies. As a result, they have developed a deep reservoir of problem-solving skills, crisis management capabilities, and an innate understanding of industry-specific nuances. This enables them to approach their work with a level of confidence and competence that only comes with time.
The dependable, day-in, day-out performance of employees is what sustains the core operations of a company. Older workers, often motivated by a strong sense of responsibility and a desire to maintain their established standards, tend to exhibit consistency in their work. Whether it's meeting project deadlines, delivering high-quality outputs, or adhering to safety protocols, older workers are known for their consistency and reliability.
Mentorship and Skill Transfer
Older workers have accumulated a wealth of experience over the years. As mentioned earlier, older workers often possess tacit knowledge—skills and insights that are difficult to articulate but are invaluable in practice. Mentoring allows them to transfer this tacit knowledge to the next generation. For instance, a veteran HR Manager may not be able to teach conflict resolution techniques from a textbook but can demonstrate effective interpersonal skills and negotiation tactics through real-world scenarios.
Workplace dynamics can be complex. Older workers have likely encountered a wide range of personal and organisational challenges throughout their careers. They can help younger employees navigate office politics, build professional relationships, and handle difficult situations with poise and maturity.
Mentoring isn't just about the day-to-day aspects of the job; it also encompasses long-term career development. Older workers can assist younger employees in setting and working towards their career goals. This might involve advice on career paths, personal development, and strategies for career advancement.
Mentors often encourage their mentees to stay updated with industry trends and emerging technologies. They may recommend relevant books, courses, conferences, or networking opportunities to support ongoing professional growth.
Facing challenges and setbacks is an inevitable part of any career. Older mentors, drawing from their own experiences, can help younger employees build resilience and confidence. They provide reassurance during tough times and share stories of how they overcame similar obstacles.
Through mentoring relationships, organisations can build a more skilled and well-rounded workforce. The transfer of knowledge from older workers to their younger counterparts ensures that essential skills and institutional knowledge are preserved and passed down, ultimately benefiting the entire organisation.
Encouraging Older Workers to Remain in the Workforce
There are many things we can do to encourage older workers to choose to remain working instead of choosing to seek early retirement, which, if they have access to private pension funds or other sources of finances is becoming an increasingly exciting prospect. However, the benefits of retaining older workers are not always obvious to all business leaders, especially if it requires investing in ways to adapt. What is clear though, if we are to compete against the prospect of early retirement, it will not be possible to carry on as we are and expect older workers to stay working because we, or the government want them to. There needs to be some recognition of, and commitment to, finding appropriate ways to demonstrate to older workers that they do not have to leave work to improve their outlook on life.
Here are some considerations:
Flexible Work Arrangements
Flexible schedules and remote working opportunities (where possible) hold specific advantages for older workers. Firstly, they offer the flexibility to adjust working hours to accommodate health-related appointments and caregiving responsibilities, allowing older employees to balance work and personal life more effectively. Secondly, remote working, at least part of the working work, eliminates the need for long commutes, reducing physical strain and promoting overall well-being.
Additionally, for those nearing retirement, more flexible working schedules and remote work can provide a gradual transition, allowing them to stay engaged in the workforce while enjoying more leisure time.
Continuous Learning and Upskilling
Ongoing training and skill development for older employees continue to be essential for several reasons. Technological advancements and changing industry trends demand that all workers, regardless of age, continuously update their skills to remain competitive. Ongoing training ensures that older workers can adapt to new technologies, tools, and processes, age need not be a barrier to doing this.
Providing training opportunities can boost older employees' confidence and job satisfaction, making them more engaged and motivated. Continuing to train older workers in new things can remove some of the barriers that might otherwise leave them feeling that their time in work is coming to a natural end. This can delay the feelings of work moving towards being outside of their comfort zone or beyond their capability or enjoyment.
Examples of Skills Development Programs and Initiatives can include:
Online Courses and Webinars - these provide access to a range of topics, from technical skills to leadership and personal development.
In-House / On-the- Job Training - tailored to the specific needs of older employees, this might include workshops, seminars, or mentorship opportunities.
Formal Learning - encouraging older workers to pursue industry certifications or credentials can enhance their qualifications and demonstrate their commitment to professional development without age being a barrier.
Cross-Training - allow employees to acquire skills in different departments or roles within the organisation, broadening their skill set and promoting versatility. This can be particularly important for employees in roles that are more physically demanding, it can help employees to see alternative roles in the organisation as a different pathway leading to a more phased retirement rather than retirement being a cliff edge.
Retirement Transition Programs - some organisations offer programs to help older employees plan for retirement while imparting their knowledge to successors, ensuring a smooth transition.
Age-Inclusive Workplace Culture
Creating an age-inclusive environment in the workplace is important for several reasons. Firstly, it promotes diversity, recognising that a multi-generational workforce brings a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and skills to the table. This diversity can lead to more innovative problem-solving and creative thinking, as different generations collaborate and learn from one another.
Secondly, an age-inclusive environment can combat ageism, a pervasive issue that can lead to discrimination against older workers or premature retirement. It ensures that every employee, regardless of their age, is valued and treated with respect.
Thirdly, it supports the retention of experienced talent, preventing the loss of valuable skills and knowledge. Finally, an age-inclusive workplace sends a powerful message to employees, clients, and partners that the organisation values diversity, equity, and inclusivity, enhancing its reputation and competitiveness.
Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace:
Diversity Training – organisations can implement mandatory diversity and inclusion training programs for all employees, highlighting the importance of age diversity and challenging stereotypes and biases.
Inclusive Recruitment – recruiters can ensure that job adverts, hiring processes, and candidate assessments are free from age-related biases. Leaders should encourage the hiring of older workers and promote age diversity in the recruitment process.
Mentorship and Reverse Mentoring – organisations can establish mentorship programs that pair employees of different age groups, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and experiences. This can be a two-way learning process, with younger employees sharing insights from newer technologies and older employees passing on institutional knowledge.
Flexible Work Arrangements - offer flexible work options, such as part-time work, job sharing, or remote work, to accommodate the needs and preferences of employees at various life stages.
Age-Neutral Policies – it is important to review and update company policies to ensure they are age-neutral.
Inclusive Leadership – it is also important to hold the mirror up and develop and promote leaders who are advocates for diversity and inclusion, including age diversity. Leadership should set the tone for the organisation's commitment to inclusivity.
Flexible Benefits – when considering the company benefit schemes and reward and recognition packages, offer a range of benefits that cater to the diverse needs of employees, including healthcare options, retirement plans, and wellness programs that consider the varying life stages and health requirements of workers.
Regular Feedback and Surveys – to ensure that the workplace continues to be age inclusive, organisations should collect and analyse feedback from employees to gauge their perceptions of age inclusivity in the workplace. This feedback can them be used to make necessary adjustments and improvements.
Addressing Health Concerns
Inclusion of older workers plays a pivotal role in sustaining a robust and diverse labour market. There is a misconception that assumes employing older individuals is an economic burden, driven by concerns about their health and associated costs. Whilst it may be true that there may be some increased costs, this viewpoint fails to balance this with the benefits already discussed in this article. Moreover, many costs and performance issues that discourage encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce can be managed or reduced by adapting to new working practices. Therefore, taking everything into consideration, employing older workers need not be more costly and the benefits can far outweigh the negatives.
Here are some examples of how health concerns, as a major contributor to this misconception, can be addressed:
Health and Wellness Programs
Health and wellness programs are instrumental in providing comprehensive support to older workers, ensuring their well-being, and enabling them to contribute effectively in the workplace. These programs encompass a range of initiatives, from fitness classes to mental health support and ergonomic improvements, tailored to address the unique needs of this demographic.
Access to Fitness Classes and Physical Well-Being - physical fitness becomes increasingly important as individuals age, health and wellness programs can include fitness classes designed to enhance strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health. These classes not only help older workers maintain their physical capabilities but also reduce the risk of injuries and chronic health conditions. Whilst the organisation may not be in a position to run classes in-house, it can encourage employees to attend classes that take place during working hours.
Mental Health Support - older workers may face unique mental health challenges, including adjusting to changes in their careers, family life, and retirement planning. Health and wellness programs can offer access to mental health counselling and stress management, providers such as an EAP service can provide resources, and tools to navigate mental health issues and find ways to successfully overcome them.
Wellness seminars and mindfulness workshops - these can promote mental resilience, helping older employees deal with workplace stress and maintain a positive outlook.
Ergonomic Improvements and Physical Comfort - workplace ergonomics are important for older workers as they may be more susceptible to physical discomfort. Employers can invest in ergonomic improvements such as adjustable desks, supportive chairs, and improved lighting to reduce strain and enhance comfort. Regular ergonomic assessments can identify individual needs and provide customised solutions, ensuring older employees have a comfortable and safe workspace. See workplace Adjustments below for a more detailed look at what can be offered.
Health Screenings and Preventive Care - health and wellness programs often include health screenings and preventive care initiatives. Regular check-ups, vaccinations, and health assessments can help detect and address health issues early, promoting overall well-being and reducing absenteeism.
Encouraging Active Lifestyles - health and wellness programs can inspire older workers to lead active lifestyles. Initiatives like walking clubs, yoga classes, or nutrition workshops encourage healthy habits both in and outside of the workplace.
Minor workplace adjustments are essential in creating an inclusive and age-friendly work environment that caters to the specific needs of older employees. These adjustments recognise that the physical and cognitive requirements of individuals may change with age, and by making simple modifications, employers can ensure that older workers remain comfortable, productive, and engaged.
Here are some specific examples of minor workplace adjustments to accommodate the needs of older employees:
Ergonomic Chairs - providing adjustable chairs with lumbar support can alleviate back pain and promote proper posture, especially for older employees who may be more susceptible to discomfort.
Height-Adjustable Desks - desks that can be raised or lowered to accommodate both sitting and standing positions allow older workers to vary their posture throughout the day, reducing the strain on joints and muscles.
Anti-Fatigue Mats - pacing anti-fatigue mats in areas where employees stand for extended periods, such as in front of workstations, can reduce fatigue and discomfort, benefiting older employees who may have reduced stamina.
Monitor and Keyboard Placement - ensuring that computer monitors are at eye level and keyboards are at a comfortable typing height can prevent neck and wrist strain, which can be more pronounced in older workers.
Hot Desking - implementing a hot desking system allows employees to choose a workstation that suits their needs on any given day, promoting flexibility and comfort.
Quiet Spaces - providing designated quiet spaces for tasks that require focus and concentration allows older workers to work without distractions, enhancing productivity.
Collaborative Areas - creating collaborative workspaces with comfortable seating and shared resources encourages interaction among employees of all ages and fosters knowledge sharing.
Flexible Seating Arrangements - allowing employees to rearrange their workspace, such as moving desks or chairs, can empower older workers to adapt their environment to their preferences and needs.
In the UK, age discrimination in employment is primarily governed by the Equality Act 2010, which provides protection against discrimination based on age, among other characteristics.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 is the key piece of legislation in the UK that prohibits discrimination on various grounds, including age. It covers both direct and indirect age discrimination, harassment related to age, and victimisation for asserting one's rights under the Act.
Prohibited Actions - under the Equality Act 2010, employers in the UK are prohibited from discriminating against individuals based on their age at any stage of the employment relationship, including recruitment, terms and conditions of employment, promotions, training, and dismissal.
Exceptions and Justifications - while the Act generally prohibits age discrimination, there are exceptions and justifications allowed in certain circumstances. For example, if an employer can demonstrate that age is a genuine occupational requirement for a specific role, age-related discrimination may be justified. However, such exceptions are interpreted narrowly.
Retirement Age - the Equality Act 2010 also phased out the default retirement age, making it generally unlawful for employers to forcibly retire employees based on their age. Employees have the right to request to work beyond any stated retirement age, and employers must consider these requests fairly.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) - the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the authority responsible for enforcing the Equality Act in the UK. Individuals who believe they have been subjected to age discrimination can file complaints with the EHRC, which may investigate and take legal action if necessary.
Strategies to Address Ageism
Kowing the risks to both employees and employers of ageist behaviour, it is important to develop a strategy to combat ageism in the workplace. The following strategy summarises what we can do in our workplaces to proactively focus on ways to reduce both unlawful behaviour, and importantly, tackle the issue of encouraging older workers to remain in our workforce and continue to be an active participant of the labour market in the UK.
Education and Training: - implement training programs that raise awareness about ageism, its impact, and how to challenge stereotypes and biases. This should be particularly targeted at people in leadership positions and those that influence decisions.
Diverse Hiring Practices - ensure that recruitment efforts actively seek candidates of all ages and avoid age-related biases during the hiring process to promote a healthy mix of diverse characteristics including ages across the spectrum of generations.
Mentorship and Reverse Mentoring - encourage intergenerational mentorship programs where younger and older employees can learn from each other's experiences.
Flexible Work Arrangements - offer flexible work options that accommodate the needs of employees at different life stages.
Alternative roles – off older workers opportunities to change their work rather than retirement being a binary option.
Access to Healthcare and Wellbeing Initiatives – ensure all employees have access to the healthcare services they need, in particular the needs of older workers which may change over time. Actively encourage all employees, especially older workers, to participate in wellbeing activities to maintain good physical and mental health.
Age-Neutral Policies - review company policies to ensure that they eliminate any age-bias.
Regular Monitoring and Feedback - create channels for employees to provide feedback on age-related issues and make necessary adjustments to promote inclusivity.
I started this article highlighting that the UK has 33.34m people in the labour market and a further 1.05 million people that are of employment age that choose not to work and regard themselves as retired. Around a third of the total labour market are over the age of 50 and there is a currently a struggle to retain older workers in the labour market which poses a significant risk to organisations losing vital skills and knowledge, creating high levels of vacancies and being unable to recruit the right people with the skills needed to succeed in these roles.
We have learned that a lot can be done to encourage older workers to remain in the workforce by introducing a more flexible approach and finding ways to accommodate the needs of older workers reducing costs associated with the risk of increased ill health and inconsistent attendance and poor performance.
By adopting a strategy to retain older workers, organisations can improve the economic outlook, not only for their business but more widely as well.