Author Profile Picture

Sheena Johnson

Read more about Sheena Johnson

Older workers: what do they offer & need?


There’s so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics’ Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. Get connected to the academic sector through Academics’ Corner and make sure you never miss another piece of key research again. If you’re an academic with a relevant story, please get in touch on [email protected].

We have an increasingly ageing population, and corresponding ageing workforce. In light of this a review of the literature was recently completed considering: the ageing workforce; how organisations are changing to accommodate an ageing workforce; the impact of workforce and organisational changes on older employees in the future.

Some background to the ageing workforce and four areas identified as having the potential to affect organisations and employees are detailed below. More detail and references to relevant research studies and papers can be found in the full report available online.

Ageing workforce background

The population of the UK aged over 65 has risen over recent years, for example from 15% of the population in 1985 to 17% in 2010. Projections indicate this trend will continue so we can expect to see increasing proportions of older individuals in the future.

Health expectancies for older individuals are also improving with an average of 12 to 14 years of good or fairly good health expected at age 65. Such changes mean that individuals are increasingly being encouraged to work to an older age, as evidenced by changes to pensions and retirement eligibility designed to retain older individuals in the workforce.

What does this mean for you?

You can expect increasing numbers of older workers and job applicants in the future.

You need to understand what you can do to ensure older workers are both happy and productive.

Changing institutional arrangements

Changes in employment and labour market patterns are expected, for example continued growth in the service sector, and declines in skilled manual roles and public sector work.

There will be increasing need for individuals to move between jobs to remain in employment and this may affect older workers disproportionately, for example falls in public sector jobs will affect older individuals more than other age groups.

An estimated 14.4 million people work in SMEs and smaller firms are less likely to have age discrimination and equal opportunity policies, or to provide occupational health services.

What do you need to know?

Demand for training and support will likely increase. Where appropriate you should help workers move between jobs within your organisation, and equip them with the skills needed as work environments change.

UK regions are expected to be differently affected so an understanding of this, alongside an understanding of the composition of your workforce, can help you to identify and provide appropriate training and support.

Having appropriate age related policies can protect your organisation from discrimination claims.

Work environments

There is some evidence that older workers have qualities that make them well suited to ‘people’ work. Of course the low pay often associated with such work may deter some older workers from moving into this sector.

It is predicted that older workers will have increasing protection against age discrimination as workplaces that don’t currently have relevant policies and practices begin to implement them.

There may be increasing demand for flexible and part time working patterns from older workers, and allowing flexible work can result in advantages for workplaces through increased productivity and improved employee work-life balance.

What do you need to know?

HR management is still seen to discriminate against older workers although this should lessen over time as awareness of age discrimination increases.

If you don’t yet have age discrimination policies and practices consider implementing them.

Be aware that you may receive requests for flexible working which you need to consider, and that all employees have the right to request flexible working.

Few employers offer flexible working during recruitment which could deter some older applicants from entering your workforce.

Employer attitudes

Older workers are still commonly subjected to negative attitudes and stereotypes in the workplace, for example with regard to training opportunities. Hopefully though, this will reduce over time  as knowledge increases into the positive elements of older worker employment.

Some recruitment practices, such as online tools, can discriminate against older workers with internet use seen to decline after the age of 25 and 60% of individuals over the age of 65 not going online.

The abolishment of the default retirement age brings increased opportunities for older workers to stay in workplaces.

What do you need to know?

You should be aware of the existence of negative age stereotypes and take care not to discriminate against older workers.

Consider your recruitment methods and ensure they are targeting people of all ages.

Keep your knowledge up to date on changes in retirement policies and practice and ensure you can support your workers in their retirement planning and decision making.

Older workers’ capacity to work

Much of the evidence looking at older worker competencies shows no support for negative attitudes and stereotypes towards older workers. Generally, older workers are as effective in the workplace as their younger counterparts.

There is little evidence to support age related declines in productivity or performance in training, and job performance is pretty much the same across age groups.

Increasing age can mean poorer musculoskeletal health which may impact on workers in physically demanding work. Cognitive health though is not seen to worsen until after the age of 70-80. Overall there is little evidence that age related health declines negatively impact on productivity and performance.

What do you need to know?

Older workers should not be denied opportunities because of concerns about their health due to their age.

There is every chance that an older worker will be as productive and competent as a younger worker.


Some key messages arising from this review are that organisations should:

  • Increase awareness in their workplace about the need to work to an older age.
  • Strive to value their older workers and avoid negative attitudes and discrimination due to stereotyping.
  • Encourage continual skill development for all age groups.
  • Facilitate knowledge transfer between employees.
  • Enforce age discrimination legislation.
  • Understand, and raise awareness of, the benefits older workers can bring to the workplace.
Author Profile Picture

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.