The ageing workforce constitutes one of the most influential contemporary labour market trends. Falling birth rates and increasing lifespans mean that fewer younger workers are entering the labour market and older worker numbers are growing.
Older workers are aged between 50 and State Pension Age (SPA), although this definition is broadening as, with the removal of the Default Retirement Age in 2011, many people are increasingly working beyond SPA and into their 70s or 80s.
For some this is a positive choice, for others it is driven by financial necessity. Whichever, older workers will increasingly feature in the labour market: by 2020, they will comprise around a third of the workforce and this proportion will increase steadily in subsequent decades.
A great opportunity to be utilised
This presents organisations with a great opportunity as older workers are a key source of knowledge, skills and capabilities and there is a strong business case for their employment. Older workers may, however, require non-traditional career routes as their expectations and aspirations change in late-career.
Importantly, as workers age they may also require support in addressing the twin challenges of working with health conditions and having caring responsibilities for elderly dependents. In the research project reported here, we explored flexible working as a means to address these challenges and extend working lives. We interviewed owner managers and older workers in six small firms across a range of sectors to develop understanding of flexible working in this context.
The two different types of flexible working
Flexible working arrangements typically fall into one of two categories: time flexibility and place flexibility.
Time flexibility involves, for example, part-time working, while place flexibility might involve working from home on a permanent or occasional basis.
Many larger organisations have formal flexible working policies, usually targeted at working parents. These policies are rarely found in smaller firms which have more informal employment relations and this raises the question of how flexibility operates here.
We found that smaller firms were well-placed to respond to older worker needs and, in the absence of policy, did so through individual negotiation. While many common flexible arrangements were in place, e.g. part-time work and compressed working weeks, there were also many innovative and creative examples targeted at older workers.
Here are some examples:
- ‘Benidorm leave’, that is, blocks of leave to accommodate extended periods of overseas travel particularly in the winter months
- Reductions in or removal of shift-working and the affording of blocks of time to deal with matters such as end-of-life care and bereavement of elderly relatives.
We found little by way of place flexibility but, importantly, we identified task flexibility as important to older workers. This is a little discussed form of flexibility and was again individually negotiated rather than provided for by policy.
It was important for older workers in supporting them in remaining in employment and included, for example, the redesign of jobs to support their changing physical and intellectual capacities. Some workers had physically demanding tasks taken from them or were supported in them by colleagues, others were supported in moving to roles now more suited to them.
Firms also designed jobs to specifically recruit skilled workers who were seeking to downshift their employment in the transition to retirement, often known as ‘bridge careers’. Many creative ways were found to support and retain older workers with these individually negotiated arrangements.
While largely positive, it must be noted that these arrangements were limited to workers with the social capital and confidence to negotiate them, meaning that others could be overlooked.
Implications for HR practitioners
- Innovative flexible working arrangements will be important to retaining and getting the best from older workers. These will be different, at least in part, to arrangements aimed at working parents.
- Time and task flexibility are particularly important and tailoring arrangements to individual need is important.
- Smaller firms are well-placed to respond individually given their informality and to be creative and innovative in a way not possible in the policy-driven approaches of larger firms.
- Care is essential in the design and implementation of individualised flexible working arrangements to avoid favouritism and discrimination, particularly where transparent policy is lacking and informality dominates.
- Care is also required as, in acting in an individualised way, smaller firms may only retain a relatively small proportion of older workers and may not accrue recruitment benefits when these arrangements are not widely available.
Based on: ATKINSON, C. & SANDIFORD, P. 2015. An Exploration of Flexible Working Arrangements for Older Workers in Smaller Firms. Human Resource Management Journal, doi: 10.1111/1748-8583.12074.