The workplace is full of uncertainties and insecurity. But one thing is certain. The workforce is getting older and people, by choice or necessity, are working longer. So what are employers and trade unions doing about this major demographic shift?
Employers frequently bemoan the shortage of relevant skills, yet allow people with experience and skills to leave through early retirement or redundancy.
More than 1.5 million people over 50 are working in health and social work and more than 1.2 million in both education and retail, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
It is doubtful that the replacements for these workers will be fully met by school leavers and many industries have a poor record on retaining older workers, seeing a large drop-off in the number aged between 45-49 and 60-64.
Finance, public administration and ICT all see a drop of more than 60% between the number of workers they employ in their late 40s and in their late 60s.
The TUC is currently engaged in a European-funded research project, WorkAge. The three-year project is being led by Nottingham Trent University in partnership with Workplace Innovation Limited.
The TUC itself commissioned research last year looking at the challenges and opportunities for trade unions in representing an ageing workforce.
It produced seven key recommendations and, in particular, recognised diversity across the older workforce – those who delay retirement because they want to; those who work longer for economic reasons; and those who want to work but are prevented from doing so by health reasons.
Unions need to provide support in many different ways to meet these diverse needs, and suggest interventions that offer solutions.
WorkAge is identifying and piloting non-age related workplace interventions that enhance engagement and delay the intention to retire, as well as developing evidence-based workplace practices.
These will focus on enabling people at all levels to use and develop their skills to the fullest possible extent during their working lives.
Two pilot sites are being used for the research – the maternity service in the Southern Health & Social Care Trust, Northern Ireland, and the Place Directorate, Stoke on Trent City Council. Three change facilitators have been hired from the two organisations.
WorkAge is concerned with four areas – work organisation; structures and work systems; learning and reflection; and worker engagement.
Participation of the workforce and their unions has been voluntary. Although currently only half way through, benefits are already being identified.
In Stoke, the mobile cleaning team have seen their ideas taken up and frontline workers now participate in monthly meetings with management.
In the maternity unit in the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, multidisciplinary team meetings now take place monthly, improving participation and removing duplication.
In both cases inviting greater participation of workers at all levels is improving morale and a sense of wellbeing. The project team will survey all staff after 12 months to examine what, if any, impact the interventions might have on older workers and retirement decisions.
WorkAge will share the outcomes of its research and practices to the widest possible audience within the UK and Europe. It will link evidence for practical solutions with policy thinking via a resource toolkit.