Do older workers respond positively to ‘Active Ageing’?

There has been a great deal of interest among employers in “Active ageing” Human Resource Management (HRM) policies and practices to support older workers in extending working lives.  Pension ages are rising for both men and women, and people are living longer and healthier lives. Further, an increasing number of older workers, especially those over sixty-five, are delaying retirement, often by making adjustments to work—like reducing working hours or shifting towards a mentoring role (in which they can be productive by sharing knowledge with younger colleagues).

Employers are looking for ways to help those older employees who are thinking about delaying retirement. Many employers are trying innovative HRM approaches to later-life work. For example, companies like BT and BAE Systems are offering employees a range of options pertaining to how and when they retire, while Barclays is offering workers mid-career apprenticeships, in part, so as to help them transition into careers that can enable longer working lives.  The National Health Service has perhaps gone furthest of any UK employer by organising a working group of managers, unions, and employees to review how rising pension ages will affect the delivery of health services with a view towards making recommendations on supporting the range of older health-care professionals working for the NHS.

Employers who offer Active Ageing HRM support, like phased retirement, may wonder how older employees may respond. In other words, if older employees are offered support in working longer, will they take up such opportunities and delay retirement? Will they be more motivated in work? Will working for ‘age positive’ employers enhance older employees’ overall quality of life? We at Newcastle and Hedmark Universities have been trying to tackle these question by applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) to the world of work. CA is the basis of the United Nations’ Human Development Reports. The idea behind it is that people have freedoms to live fulfilling lives but may need support in order to realise their goals.  This is why society provides access to education, healthcare, and pensions.  We are applying CA to work by considering not only what older workers want in terms of fulfilling work in later life but also how employer interventions can support them in achieving such work.

Using a survey of 800 older workers in the UK, we looked first at whether employer support—such as having a line manager you can talk to about your retirement plans; having supportive colleagues; and having age-positive HRM policies—leads to more choices in work, within the spheres of flexible working, job rotation, and work that meets their physical and mental capabilities.

Secondly, we considered whether choices in work lead to better work environments.  Finally, we considered whether better work environments lead to longer working lives and/or higher quality of life. We built into our model factors such as income, qualifications, and gender (as well as past career trajectories that affect work autonomy later in careers).

Our preliminary findings are that having supportive employers does lead to more choices in work. For example, people who say that their employers are aware of the needs of older workers and who feel that they are able to discuss retirement plans with their line managers also say that they have more flexibility with their working hours and have work that matches their abilities. Those with more choices reported better work and health, as well as more confidence in their retirement plans. Older workers with more choices also report higher quality of life, health, and autonomy.  Interestingly, we were unable to find a relationship between work context and when respondents are planning to retire.  This may be because people plan their retirements based on a variety of factors, including work, finances, family, caring responsibilities, and their partner’s retirement plans.

Although active ageing HRM interventions may not directly alter planned retirement ages, they do seem to lead to more job satisfaction and higher quality of life. This is important because older workers are not just seeking to work longer but also (more importantly) to work in jobs that are fulfilling and are suited to their lives both inside and outside of the workplace.

If employers can support older workers into work that they value and that enhances their overall quality of life, such interventions will go a long way towards giving older workers more autonomy over their lives, even within the context of rising pension ages.

This blog piece is reprinted from Business in the Community webpage: