Thu 14 Nov 2019

65 Not Out

As baby boomers near retirement age, employers are facing the prospect of a contracting labour market in the UK.

The birth rate has been in decline for some time, the younger generation are spending more time in education and, despite what we hear about people wanting/having to work on later, in reality the average age of exit from the labour market in 2019 was just over 65 for men and just under 64 for women.  In the case of men, that is two years younger than the average age of exit in 1950.  Over the next decade, 2.7 million more people will be 65 or older leaving a considerable hole in the available workforce. 

While AI and immigration may provide some assistance in filling the gap, the limited reach of the former and the current uncertainty regarding the effect of Brexit on the latter are contributing factors to why they are unlikely to solve the problem.  Employers are going to need to do more to keep older people in the workplace and the management of older workers will bring with it a whole gamut of HR challenges.

While the number of successful age discrimination claims we see in employment tribunals are relatively low - the annual employment tribunal statistics report that there were only 12 successful age discrimination claims in 2018/19 - if employers retain a broader age range in the workplace it makes it likely that this is going to increase in the future.  Compensation awards for age discrimination can be high, with no cap and the potential for an injury to feelings award.  While the maximum award made in an age discrimination claim was only £172,070 last year (I say "only" because it is not unusual for the annual statistics to report the highest discrimination award to be in excess of £1million), it did have the highest median award made of any type of claim. So if an employer does get it wrong they may well need deep pockets. 

Retention of older workers is going to become more and more important. While the increase in less physical roles and better health make that possible the challenges created by it will go far beyond simply catering to the needs of older workers.  Different generations often have differing expectations, ambitions and ways of doing things informed by their own experiences.  These differences are likely to become starker when there is a 50 year age gap between workers.  Society also perhaps has a slightly more lax attitude to "ageist banter" - certainly if compared to the use of racist or sexist language - and ill thought out remarks may become a source of tension (and discrimination or harassment) in the workplace.  Avoiding "casual ageism" may need to become a standard part of management training sessions. 

Unconscious bias is also likely to be an issue. It is after all probably not unreasonable to suggest that a significant proportion of society might anticipate that those in their 50s and 60s to be looking to "wind down" while those in their 20s will be looking for investment in developing their skills.  Ensuring equality of opportunity irrespective of age will need to become a focus.

And while retention of the older generation needs to become a priority, the same actually has to be said for all ages.  For those in the younger age group, if they see those in senior (and as a result often better paid) roles not going anywhere how do employers keep them motivated, satisfy their ambition and, ultimately, retain them?

Some answers to these problems are already becoming part of standard management practice.  Many aspects of flexible working lends itself to all age groups.  Younger workers have a greater expectation of being able to work flexibly than previous generations, and, as people's lives and responsibilities change, time off and differing working hours can be used for anything from additional training to caring responsibilities, travel or "part-retirement".  Intergenerational mentoring can also be used to great effect and diversity and inclusion policies need to have as strong a focus on age as any other protected characteristic.  After all, age is just a number.  

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