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Colborn’s Corner: 65 and out!

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Quentin Colborn The recent judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), that the default retirement age of 65 breaches the European Directive on equal treatment, may have signalled the end for the Heyday challenge. So this week Quentin Colborn asks, is it reasonable to expect people to retire at 65?




What focussed the ECJ in making its decision was whether the practice of providing for a default retirement age of 65 was legal, and it could be if it had a legitimate aim related to employment and social policy. The UK government argued that this was a proportionate and legitimate objective as it wishes to see the opportunity for other workers to enter the workforce.

At one end of the debate is the question as to whether the state should get itself involved in setting retirement ages. One could argue that retirement dates are just part of a simple commercial relationship between employee and employer in which both parties freely participate. Yet we know that the odds are weighted mightily in favour of the employer and so leaving it to market forces is seen to be unfair.

“What about those who are effectively pushed out when they are still willing and able to contribute?”

So why else might the government wish to influence retirement age? Of course the government is a major employer in its own right and whatever legislation it invokes it also has to live with as an employer.

But the government also has another role; that of overseeing manpower planning within the country. Whilst we are not what the economists used to called a planned economy (frequently an euphemism for a communist country), the government does, I believe, have a legitimate objective of trying to balance labour demand and supply.

From the government perspective, it is a legitimate objective of having a default retirement age of 65 to ensure that job opportunities exist for younger workers, who will therefore develop skills to be used through their working life. But while getting younger workers into the workforce is highly laudable, what about those who are effectively pushed out when they are still willing and able to contribute?

I think this is a very difficult question to address. For many though, as time goes on people are less able to do their jobs effectively. The change is slow and can be almost unnoticed, yet looked at over time there is a gradual reduction in capability.

Not to say that this is the case with everyone though; there are many who are fit, well and effectively contributing to work well into their 70’s – and even beyond. But for those whose performance dips as they get older how should employers address it? Given the legislation that exists regarding age discrimination, any reduction in performance needs to be tacked through a performance management or capability process that may well end up using the disciplinary procedure.

“When people leave they need to do so with dignity and with a recognition of their contribution to the organisation.”

My personal view is that this is a totally unsuitable way to end an individual’s working life. To my mind, when people leave they need to do so with dignity and with a recognition of their contribution to the organisation. Yet if there is no default retirement age, and people fail to recognise their dwindling capabilities, then formal processes may be the only way to end the working relationship – and that can’t be right.

Much better, in my view, that we have the current mixture of a legislative framework, yet with the ability to have some flexibility where appropriate. I think our present system of individual’s being able to request to work after the age of 65 creates that opportunity to end the relationship without the need for formal processes – that way hopefully we get the best of both worlds.

How do you see compulsory retirement? Would it make a difference to your organisation if there were no default retirement age? How many people do you find asking, and being granted, the right to work beyond 65? Let other readers have the benefit of your experience.


Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. He can be contacted via his website at www.qcpeoplemanagement.co.uk

One Response

  1. Balanced approach
    I believe a balanced approach to retirement age may be the answer. A default retirement at 65 with the option to continue on a year by year basis after that by mutual consent between the employer and employee. That way, whenever either party feels that it’s time, the employment can be brought to a natural conclusion without resorting to performance management or disciplinary procedures.

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