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Editor’s Comment: Living to work or working to live?

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Annie Ward

We know the score – the pension outlook for most is bleak; Editor’s Comment looks at the option of life long learning as a means for plugging the shortfall.


Last October, Adair Turner revealed a pension shortfall of £57 billion a year brought about by a population that lives longer and slowing birth rates; one way of plugging this gap is to work longer and tap into the talents of an ageing workforce.

If you dreamt of retiring at 55, you might have to think again because on average you will only have worked for 30 years or so and might still have 30 years left to pay for.

Average male life expectancy at age 65 has increased from 12.0 years in 1950 to an estimated 19.0 today.

The Government Actuary’s Department’s 2002-based principal projection suggests that it will rise to 21.7 by 2050.

If average male life expectancy at age 65 continued to rise at the 1980-2000 trend rate it would reach 27.7 by 2050.

Working beyond retirement age though has not been found to be a popular option by Office Angels who conducted a survey of 1500 office workers aged between 18-65.

The findings report that 52% of respondents are against the idea of working into old age and beyond 65.

But is this because older workers genuinely dislike the idea of any type of work altogether or is just because bosses fail to show flexibility towards their needs and age discrimination despite impending regulations outlawing it, persists?

Myths and misconceptions about the impact of ageing on the ability of older people to learn new skills abound, even as we enter an era where we live longer and continue to enjoy good physical and mental health right into our 70s, 80s and 90s.

Surveys such as The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education – England and Wales’s on adult participation in learning (2002) shows that in general the older people are, the less likely they are to participate in learning, learning drops off dramatically after the age of 65 but this seems to tie in with the time when workers traditionally retire.

So can we lift these age-barriers to learning and encourage older workers to embrace lifelong-learning and indeed bosses to support them?

I spoke to Alan Pickering, a partner at Watson Wyatt and trustee of the Pre-Retirement Association about the challenges Britain faces:

“There are two advantages in providing access to lifelong learning. The first is that, even if there wasn’t a demographic challenge Britain would be guilty of criminal waste by denying older workers access to re-training.”

Even if we saved more, explains Pickering, it may not be enough to support retirees financially to plug the pensions’ shortfall.

“The second is that lifelong learning is not just an ‘elitist white-collar aspiration’, people who didn’t shine at school or those that work in manual roles shouldn’t be perceived as one-dimensional. Even if our physical powers disappear in later life we can do other things.”

And says Pickering, it’s in employers best interests to do this.

“Employers spend lots of money on recruiting staff but fail to get an adequate return on the investment they’ve made by pensioning people off.”

So what’s the solution? Pickering envisages a situation in which older workers can mix and match work with retirement, a form of protiring.

A culture in which we plug the pensions’ gap by training older workers new skills, tapping into a new pool of workers who may have worked a whole career in one field but can use their vast experience of work and life to turn their hand to something new if they so wish, in turn plugging the skills gap and filling vacancies.

Labour statistics constantly tell us that while we are experiencing high levels of employment there are consistently large numbers of jobs left unfilled. So it seems an obvious solution to allow retirees who wish to work and need the extra cash to fund their retirement to fill these black-holes.

And is anyone currently doing it well? B&Q, the DIY retailer pioneered a trend to employ older workers in the late 1980s. Back then it piloted a project in which an entire store was staffed by over 50s. The feedback from customers and staff was so positive it continued its policy of hiring older workers.

So why aren’t more businesses embracing lifelong-learning and tapping into this pool of talent? One of the main obstacles is age discrimination.

Despite regulations which are due to come into force in 2006 outlawing age discrimination employees are still finding it a barrier to getting work.

A survey by Spring Personnel found that 63% of UK companies are not planning to actively recruit from the over 50 age group.

Spring Group CEO, Richard Barfield said at the time: “How is the UK Government going to reach its goal of keeping people in employment until they are 70 when the majority of companies are not planning to employ people over 50?

Unless employers can be persuaded of the benefits of using older people in the workforce then the pensions’ black hole of £57bn is going to get bigger.”

Businesses must pick up the gauntlet of lifelong learning if future retirees are going to be allowed to help themselves when the pensions’ shortfall becomes reality. After all businesses can learn a lot by passing on the knowledge from older workers down the chain, boosting the bottom line while they’re at it.

The Government it would seem is certainly moving in the right direction. We now see plans in place to increase the supply of older workers and to stimulate demand by lowering the cost of employing them and moving the goalposts on retirement ages but more can be done and what we really need is for the attitudes of employers to change; recruiters should no longer march into the interview room with preconceived notions of how old a worker should be. As with any change it will take time for things to start moving in the right direction but with the pensions clock ticking we need to get started.


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Annie Hayes

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