Preparing for longer working lives: time for a revolution in the way we work?

Every few weeks I write a blog posting for Discuss HR.  The posting below will be published today:

Recently Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, who have both served alongside Sir Alan Sugar in the BBC’s Apprentice, explored what it might take for people to continue working into their 70s in The Town That Never Retired.  I found myself wondering to what extent the HR profession is at the vanguard of shaping a way of working in the future which reflects the life expectancy of modern British men and women.

I confess that, for purely personal reasons, I have long been interested in the question of what happens as people get older.  Not surprisingly, my interest starts at home:  I was just 18 when my parents retired, my father aged 70 and my mother aged 51.  My mother, who had always managed home and family as well as working alongside my father on the farm, continued to thrive whilst my father struggled to adapt.  Years later, when he was well into his 80s or maybe even 90s, my father continued to make references to his contribution to the family as a farmer, as if his sense of identity was still vested in his bygone work.  My mother, on the other hand, continued to bring up her children, looked after her parents in their old age and then my father in his.  She has been a church warden for many years, organised an annual concert for 25 years, still organises the bookstall in the monthly village market and even – now aged 81 – continues to cook for the “old folk” at the village lunch club.

As an amateur singer I have also had cause to be aware of just how well some people thrive well into their old age.  I sang under the baton of Leonard Bernstein until he died in 1990, aged 72.  In 1997, I was deprived of the opportunity to sing under the baton of Sir Georg Solti when he died shortly before a concert, aged 85.  I am pleased to say that Sir Colin Davis continues to delight in his 85th year.

But what about corporate Britain?  Some employers have long since cottoned on to the value of older employees.  As early as 2001 The Grocer ran an article entitled Asda and Sainsbury take a positive view of older workers.  The article highlights how, in response to the then government’s Age Positive Campaign, Sainsbury “now offers arrangements which allow older staff to reduce the hours they spend at work gradually, and a new pension plan which allows staff to contribute until they are aged 75”.  In my own local Sainsbury it was Norma, who must be about 70 years old, who served me a few months back on the day that snow had caused travel chaos and staff were still struggling to get in.  I value the older staff in my local supermarket because they have an ease in interacting with people of all ages and experience of using the products they sell – which is sometimes obviously lacking amongst the “youngsters”.

As I sit and muse I realise I do have a vision, albeit barely considered, of a way of working which takes far greater account of the needs of workers and the natural rhythms of life.  For young people there might be opportunities to work longer hours to earn that elusive mortgage deposit.  For parents there might be opportunities to work less and spend more time with children.  For older people there might be opportunities to work shorter hours whilst still making a valuable and valued contribution in the workplace (and, yes, earning a living).  Perhaps, in time, there will be a degree of choice throughout our careers which supports employees in contributing to their place of work and to their family.  To put it another way, the more we need people to work well into their 60s, 70s and 80s, the more we need to design ways of working throughout people’s careers that support health, fulfilment and longevity.  We also need to do our research – one interesting fact from The Town That Never Retired is that research shows, in a way that may be counter-intuitive, that employment prospects for young people are better when older people work longer.

As you’ve no doubt already discovered, I don’t have all the answers, but rather want to ask the questions.  My main question to you is this:  as an HR professional, how far ahead are you looking and how do you envisage the future for the older people of this country?

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