Work till you drop: when will you retire — and do you want to?
Part 3 of a 9 part series
For 27 years, Ann White says she used to “hang her brain on a nail” outside the factory door when she arrived at work each morning. White, now 60, always assumed she would retire as soon as she could collect her state pension. Now she never wants to stop.
Five years ago, White’s company – Steelite International UK – suggested she go back to the classroom. White, who had left school at 16, took up the company’s offer. She got her NVQ level 2 in English, Maths and ICT. The company then offered her a mentor and professional training. At 58, White crossed from the factory floor to management, and is now in charge of the factory’s cleaning team.
“I can’t imagine stopping working now,” she said when I visited her in her office in Stoke-on-Trent. “I’ve got a new lease of life.”
This series, investigating our experience of retirement in Britain, last week unearthed some dismal truths about the financing of later life. With so few of us saving enough for our twilight years, retirement is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. That has huge implications for workplaces, and how we treat older workers. Some, like White, may want to work for ever; others will find it an intolerable burden.
I headed to Stoke after Dr Ros Altmann, who spoke to me last week about Britain’s terrifying pension black hole, told me that the tableware manufacturer was a shining example of how companies should treat their older workers.
She was right. But the company has not adopted this approach out of a sense of altruism. Neil Hooper, the managing director, admitted Steelite had no choice but to persuade its older workers to keep clocking on, long after they could lay down tools.
“The average age of our employees is 44 and a half,” he said. “Almost 40% of our workforce is over 50. We struggle to get younger people to work here so if we don’t look after our older workforce and harness their skills, we’re just – frankly – being foolish.”
Steelite has already adapted to the unstoppable force of demographics but the rest of the UK workplace will eventually have to follow: between 2012 and 2022, an estimated 12.5m jobs will become vacant as a result of older people leaving the workforce. Yet only 7 million younger people will start working to fill them.
That should be good news for older workers who aren’t ready to retire quite yet and indeed, Britain’s workforce is greying almost before our eyes: in the last 15 years, the number of working people aged 50 to 64 has increased by 60% to 8 million (far greater than the increase in the population over 50). The proportion of people aged 70-74 in employment, meanwhile, has almost doubled in the past 10 years.
This trend will continue. By 2020, one-third of the workforce will be over 50. In a generation, the current state pension age will be a distant memory: as I discussed in part two of The new retirement, experts now predict that those entering the workforce today, will be in their mid-70s to early-80s before being able to draw their state pension.
“I am 68 and still lucky to be working,” said commenter Kasho, in response to the first chapter of this series. “There is also something to be said about passing on experience to others. Of course we all have the usual aches and pains but you accept them gracefully and move on.”
Despite the proof that workforces will have to embrace older workers, however, government statistics show that up to a million older workers have been forced out of work prematurely through age discrimination, caring responsibilities or health issues.
There are compelling economic reasons for staunching this haemorrhage. Almost one-third of people in the UK aged 50-64 are not working. Were the employment rate for older workers to match that of the 30-40 age group, however, the additional tax take could be as much as £88.4bn. And when employers take retention of older workers seriously, organisations gain significant benefits. McDonald’s, for example, reports 20% higher performance in their outlets where workers aged 60 and over are employed as part of a multi-generational workforce.
This is why the minister for employment, Damian Hinds, and Andy Briggs, the government’s champion for older workers, will launch a new strategy next week that, said Hine’s spokesman, ‘aims to start changing perceptions, both of employers and older people, and help employers adapt to the changing demographic environment’.
If that sounds vague, then the spokesman concedes that it is. The strategy, Fuller Working Lives, is advisory. “We’re not changing legislation,” he admitted. “It’s about perceptions and those are difficult to legislate for”.
Julia Frazer, 71, responded to a Guardian callout for those working past state retirement age. She has been the head of computing at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London for the last 20 years. She is clear that it benefits significantly from continuing to employ her.
“I have a unique combination of wide-ranging experience as a result of my age that the department couldn’t easily find elsewhere,” said Frazer, who works full-time. “I haven’t given any thought to when I’ll stop work. I give no thought to my age at all in my professional life and I don’t think the department does either.”
Earlier this month, in Davos, Prof Lynda Gratton, author of The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, hosted a session on increasing life expectancy. Rather than the three traditional stages of life, education, work and retirement, Gratton expects people to have to constantly retrain as they shift careers and focus.
Counterintuitively, she suggests that one positive of having a longer career could be a better work-life balance. Taking a couple of years out to look after children or ageing parents, for example, won’t be such a big deal when your career lasts for 60-plus years.
Susan Carter, who emailed me to talk about her experiences, agrees. Aged 70, she works full-time at the printing and design business she set up in Witney, Oxfordshire, eight years ago with her 63-year-old business partner.
“We set up the business because we were very realistic about the likelihood of suffering age discrimination: I was made redundant four times between 2000 and 2008,” she said. “Age discrimination starts becoming obvious in your mid-50s. You start being made redundant for restructuring, which seems the euphemism for age discrimination nowadays. And each time, getting a new job is more difficult.”
Ruth Winden has been a career adviser for 25 years. Six months ago, she decided to specialise in advising older people simply because so many were coming through her doors. “My clients, usually aged between 50 and 64, fall into two groups,” she said. “They’re either preempting age discrimination because they want to work for another 10 to 15 years or they have already been made redundant and want to get back into the workplace.”
Winden predicts that the demographics will shortly force out ageism. In the next 10 to 15 years, she argues, the UK is going to be so short of employees – especially if the barriers go up to Europe – that employers will be forced to help people stay in work longer.
In the meantime, however, a greater number of older people are becoming jobless than finding work, and almost 40% of employment and support allowance claimants are over 50, an indication that many older people are unable to easily find new and sustainable work.
Prof Alan Walker, the director of the New Dynamics of Ageing programme, has found in his research that although some employers are positive about the contribution of older workers, age discrimination in the workplace is rife.
“Negative stereotypes present a huge barrier to older workers and, perhaps worst of all, often become internalised by the older people themselves,” he said. “This leads to people effectively discriminating against themselves by, for example, not coming forward for training or promotion.
“There is something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy at play,” he added. “Older workers are the least likely to receive in-work training but when asked about their reluctance to employ older workers, the main factor cited is ‘lack of appropriate skills’.”
Philippa, who responded to our callout, says she intended to work until she was 70. Instead, she was made redundant two years ago, aged 57, and has not been able to find another job. “I am very well-qualified, and experienced in the investigation of corporate financial crime but I can’t get work, which I think is only because of my age,” said Philippa, who asked me not to use her surname.
For the past nine months, she has had to attend a two-year “work programme” sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions three times a week. Speaking to me during her break at the programme, she said: “If I don’t come my benefits are cut. But coming here is humiliating, frustrating, degrading and pointless. I’ve been laughed at by staff, who tell me I’ve got no chance of finding a job ‘at my age’. I feel like a semi-criminal. I apply for job after job, but don’t hear a word.”
But there are also those who have to work when they are desperate to give up. Boomer1952 responded to part one of this series saying that only people who work in offices believe that working on well into retirement is an option. “I am 64 with bad arthritis and a respiratory complaint. I have worked outdoors most of my life in the construction industry. I have never smoked or been overweight, but I cannot countenance working on beyond when I get my pension this year.”
This is what concerns Professor Debora Price director of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing: “There is evidence to suggest that opportunities for people to work beyond State Pension Age might well be making inequalities worse,” she says. Raising pension ages entails a ‘cross-subsidy’ to the middle-income and wealthy groups from the poor, who have a lower life expectancy, she argues. “In the future, many older workers will remain stranded in a ‘zone of insecurity’ in their late-50s to early-70s, faced with declining incomes on the one side, and contracting job opportunities on the other”.
Fiona Macdonald, a 56-year-old Scottish civil servant, points out that it’s not just manual workers who find the idea of working past retirement age exhausting.
“I don’t want to work until I drop,” said Macdonald, whom we met in last week’s instalment. “I’ve worked for long enough. It’s not that I do a physical job that’s worn out my body but I’m just tired of the slog. I want to stop work while I’m still fit and healthy enough to pursue interests beyond work. Surely that’s not too much to ask?”
What do you think: will you work until you drop and, if so, is that because you want to – or you have to? Do you expect age discrimination to affect you or do you have plans to body-swerve any prejudice that comes your way?
In coming weeks I’ll be looking at the experiences of women in retirement, and the joys and freedoms that life after work can bring.
This article was written by Amelia Hill from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.