Exploring the ageing face of the modern workforce, as increasing numbers of older adults work on into later life.
Singaporean society is greying. According to government statistics the median age of the population will rise from under 40 today to 47 by 2030, with only 2.1 ‘working age’ citizens — defined as between 20–64 years old — for every citizen over 65. Population growth has fallen to its slowest in a decade, creating a sense of quiet panic among policymakers, who have to balance the books to pay for the increasing costs of healthcare and welfare, while simultaneously struggling with a dwindling workforce. “While the economy will go up and down, in the long run, demography is destiny,” prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech last year.
In August the country launched a $3 billion (£1.5 billion) ‘Action Plan for Successful Ageing’, combining social, welfare and work-based initiatives to allow the over 65s to participate in the economy. Since 2012 Singaporeans have been able to work well beyond the state pension age. Age and intergenerational issues are high on the political agenda in the city-state, which has a minister responsible for tackling this demographic challenge. It is an enlightenment borne out of necessity and its progress may be watched closely by governments in Europe, who have their own ageing time bomb to worry about.
In the UK the number of people over 65 is predicted to increase by 12% between 2015 and 2020, compared with an overall population growth of just 3%. The cost of welfare for this age group will increase by, on average, £2.8 billion per year over the same period. The ‘dependency ratio’ — the number of working age people to every pensioner — will fall to 2.7 over the next two decades.
This shift has profound economic implications that stretch far beyond the drain on fiscal resources. Dwindling pension schemes will need to stretch further and further as life expectancy increases, and in response retirement ages will inevitably rise, meaning more and more older people in the workforce in both white and blue-collar jobs. This, in turn, creates enormous challenges for companies and individuals, from inter-generational tension to entrenched ageism that has typically driven older workers out of the labour force.
When it comes to managing the workforce, there exists a greater degree of diversity between the haves and the have-nots. “Some people make out very well later in life, for some people it’s terrible. That’s especially true when it comes to joblessness and job transitions,” says Matt Flynn, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce at Newcastle University Business School. “Some people are able to make transitions very well. Some people just get stuck.”
Within the press, and to a large extent within the government’s public discussions, the narrative has been around how to manage the supposed burden of age. However some outlying companies have unilaterally decided to reorient their attitudes to age, redesigning their processes and facilities to embrace the demographic shift.
“While there are barriers relating to ageism, which are creating challenges for older workers, you do have a number of organisations that are turning that on their head and are having a more age-positive approach to how they manage workers,” says Flynn. He highlights Barclays, which has created an apprenticeship programme for workers looking for a mid-career change in their 50s or above.
“What’s in it for Barclays? Well, they’re bringing in a lot of people from different sectors, usually within the community, who have something to offer the organisation that maybe candidates from traditional routes may not normally have.”
In the financial services industry, where customers as well as employees are ageing, it is easier to see the benefits of age-positive hiring policies. In the manufacturing and construction sectors, where jobs are typically more physically demanding, the challenge is more acute. Again, Flynn says, there can be advantages to retaining older workers.
“Manufacturing is something that’s been in decline for some time in the UK, but you do have some sub-sectors that are growing, global companies who are making the best use of new technology to have a competitive advantage over places where labour might be a bit cheaper,” he says. Those companies are increasingly offering more than just products, bundling services, maintenance and consultancy on top of physical goods.
“That offers organisations an opportunity to redeploy the skills that their manufacturing workers have, from jobs that are physically demanding to ones where their knowledge of the product and their ability to deliver good services to customers matters.”
Others, he says, have found that ‘phased retirement’ — moving older workers onto flexible arrangements — actually helps to manage the peaks and troughs of demand. Weapons manufacturer BAE Systems found that its negotiated settlement with trade unions allowing workers to transition more gradually from employment to retirement has helped to better manage its costs, according to Flynn.
Some businesses have taken a more radical approach to the physical design of their workplaces. In the late 2000s, after realising that the age of its employees was creeping upwards, the German car-maker BMW began to adapt its production line in Dingolfing, near Munich, putting in wooden floors, adjustable desks and hoists that reduce the strain on workers. The result has been an increase in productivity and the company has rolled out the technology into other plants.
Adapting the workplace for an ageing workforce goes beyond the factory. Older office workers are often more sensitive to harsh or changing conditions, be that temperature, lighting or noise, according to Jeremy Myerson, chair at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, who has worked on several studies and consultations looking into the impact of demographic shifts in business.
“I think that the workplace had been ignoring demographic change and had been very focused on technological and economic change,” he says.
Myerson advises a number of environmental interventions, from creating quiet areas for rest and contemplation through to introducing behavioural protocols in multi-generational workplaces. “Offices are very demanding,” he says.
A large part of making the transition is simply acknowledging that change is experienced differently by different generations.
“You can go into an open plan office in London and see three or four generations at work. You’ve got the boomer generation, you’ve got Gen X, Gen Y and the Millennials,” Myerson says. “You’ve got a lot of people joining the workforce with very different attitudes to technology from the older generations.”
Technological change — and in particular the wider shift towards the ‘gig economy’ of technology-enabled freelancing — can be exclusionary, but can equally open up new opportunities for a workforce that may want to be more flexible during their transition out of full-time work.
For many, gig work has become a different kind of wage slavery and there is little research available on how much this trend towards greater flexibility will impact older workers, versus their digitally native, younger counterparts. However, as Myerson says, the current system is hardly working. “At the moment, we have a cliff-edge retirement, which is when you’re 64 and 11 months you’re working 40, 50 hours a week, and then the following week you’re working zero hours a week. That’s ridiculous.”
So much literature on ageing is negative. Marc Freedman wants to change that. He argues that since public health has given us longer, healthier lives, we now need to radically rethink later life.
To explore the subject of ageing we teamed up with The Powerful Now, an IDEO + SYPartners initiative poised to creatively redefine ageing as a path of continual growth instead of decline. Together we wanted to explore the ways in which health, money, work and communities will exist in our future, and initiate discussions to find radical new solutions.