The Wisdom of the Ages: working longer lives

14 Jun 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 14 Jun 2019

It’s great that people are living longer, the flip side is that we have to work for longer too.


This week The National Lottery Community Fund is investing more than £2 million of National Lottery funding on a 5 year project to support older people to remain in or return to work in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The money will go to Age NI, in partnership with Business in the Community Northern Ireland, for the Age at Work project which is raising awareness of an ageing workforce and supporting businesses to be more age inclusive.

Working for longer is good for people in many ways. There’s the income for a start. But it also provides stimulation, satisfaction and camaraderie.

Yet there is also a burning economic need too.

When the State Pension was introduced in 1948, a 65-year-old could expect to spend 13.5 years in receipt of it – around 23% of their adult life. This has been increasing ever since. By  2017, a 65-year-old could now expect to live for another 22.8 years, or 33.6% of their adult life.

Latest projections from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of people over State Pension age in the UK is expected to grow by a third between 2017 and 2042, from 12.4 million in 2017 to 16.9 million in 2042.

The government’s response has been to increase the age at which people can claim State Pension. Those born between 1970 and 1978 will now have to wait until they are 68.

Despite planned increases it is expected that – for every 1,000 people of working age in 2039 – there will be 370 people of state pensionable age. The logic of that is that there will be fewer people of working age to support pensioners through their taxes.

Northern Ireland is not quite in the same position as the UK as a whole. We have a younger population than the rest of the population (median age 38.5 as opposed to 40.3 for the UK as a whole). However it is ageing. Between 2007 and 2017, the pension age population (aged 65+) rose by a quarter (25 per cent) to 303,000, while the number of residents aged 85+ increased by a third (33 per cent) to 37,000.

This is the stark reality which demonstrates that working later is not just good for those who do, it is good for everyone else as well.

Despite this the  exodus from work starts much earlier than the State Pension Age. 

According to government figures over half of men and women are not in work in the year before they reach retirement age and one in four men and one in three women have not worked for five years or more.

Across the UK there are almost one million people aged 50-64 years old that are not in employment but state that they are willing to, or would like to, work.

There are a number of drivers behind this.  Research suggests a  significant proportion of people aged 50 years and over ‘voluntarily’ leave the labour market, because they want to, and say they have planned a financially stable retirement.  Yet, as life expectancy increases this may not prove to be the case and they may struggle to maintain the standard of living they would like.

The same UK-wide research estimates that  1.1 million people aged 50-64 who left their job in the past eight years did so for ‘involuntary reasons’, typically due to ill-health, caring responsibilities or redundancy.

 Some individuals could be supported to overcome these barriers and remain in, or return to, some form of work.  Poor health is known as a significant factor given by individuals aged 50-64 who leave the labour market early. Yet we also know that good, appropriate paid work can be beneficial for individuals’ health and wellbeing.

The evidence about older people in work is clear.

Caring is a big issue too. Three in five carers are over 50 with 50-54 the peak age for women. As the workforce continues to age a greater proportion will be involved in care of one form or another. This demands a flexible response from employers so that valuable staff can combine working with caring for loved ones.

Performance of older people in the workforce tends to be excellent. A 2015 UK-wide survey cited in another government report finds :

 • more than three quarters of employers believed that the experience of workers over 50 was the main benefit of having them in their organisation;

 • 65 per cent highlighted the reliability of older workers;

 • 54 per cent value the role that older workers play as mentors;

• 87 per cent of employers reject the idea that the skills of older workers are unsuitable for their business.

However, despite this, older people get far less training than their younger peers – another significant issue as technology increasingly transforms every workplace. This again needs to be addressed for older people.

Two year ago Age NI commissioned research into the attitudes of 40-60 year olds to working later in life. It found:

46% are likely work past the state pension aged to be able to afford their desired lifestyle;

  47% will not have enough money to retire with 24% both feeling they would be bored/lonely and they enjoy the social side of money;

25% have felt disadvantaged or treated negatively when at work or applying for jobs since the age of 40

In this context the Age at Work project is important and deserves every support. It is good for everyone.

By supporting older people to remain in or return to work, the project is helping them to have enough income, stay connected, develop new skills, lead a fuller working life and reduce loneliness and isolation.

Siobhan Casey, director of business development and marketing at Age NI, said: “We are all living for longer, which means that for many of us, we will also be working for a greater length of time. This presents both challenges and opportunities for older workers and employers.

“Our research has told us that older people want to continue in employment for a number of reasons. These might include wanting to stay connected with others (30%), or for some it might be for financial reasons.  However, as caring responsibilities, health issues and other interests emerge, the need for employers to adapt to these scenarios by offering more flexible options is critical to retaining and valuing the expertise and contribution of older workers. “

It’s good for business too, as employing more people with skills and experience will help them meet their goals. The project is encouraging businesses to recruit, retain and retrain older workers. It is offering resources, advice and support including training and work placements. The project is also working with employers to support age inclusive policies.

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