Who’s championing older workers?

Andrew Masters

Partner & Head of Employment

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July 3, 2017

Categories Employment Law

There is an irony in the world of work, with workers living longer, working longer and yet a fifth of European employees interviewed as part of a recent survey by ADP UK, identifying  age as the biggest obstacle in preventing career progression* .

By 2022, one in three of working age population is predicted to be aged 50 or over.

Around half of older employees expect to work past the traditional retirement age of 65, according to a new CIPD survey that suggests many employers have yet to engage with the changing demographics of the workplace**.

Who then is championing the rights of older workers?

This issue is certainly on the current government agenda.  Its Fuller Working Lives strategy is aiming to take forward Baroness Ros Altmann’s review A New Vision for Older Workers (March 2015) which advances compelling economic and business reasons for engaging with an aging workforce and recommends initiatives to ‘recruit, retain and retrain’ older workers.

In their recent election manifesto the Conservatives promised to help all workers seeking to develop their skills in their existing jobs by introducing a new right to request leave for training for all employees; introducing a right to lifelong learning in digital skills; and helping those groups who have in the past found it difficult to get employment, by incentivising employers to take them on.

Older workers were not specifically mentioned in the Conservative’s manifesto. Their 2017 Spring Budget, however, contained announcements of two initiatives aimed at recognising that individuals should have the opportunity to retrain and upskill at all points in their life.  These included the announcement of an investment of up to £40 million to be spent by 2018-2019 on ‘lifelong learning pilots’ testing different approaches to retraining and upskilling; and an investment of £5 million for identifying how best to increase the number of ‘returnships’ offering routes back to employment for people who have taken a lengthy career break.

The initiatives are likely to enjoy cross party support. In its recent election manifesto, Labour promised to set up a commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

The Liberal Democrats explicitly stated that it is no longer the case that skills learned at 18 or 21 will last throughout a career.  Its manifesto made particular reference to the ‘mature worker’ with one of its stated objectives being , ‘to create individual accounts for funding mature adult and part-time learning and training, and provide for all adults individual access to all necessary career information, advice and guidance.’

Interestingly, for the most-part, while the parties showed a commitment to developing and encouraging apprenticeships, which will no doubt benefit older workers, the employment provisions of their respective manifestos did not, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, spotlight older workers.  All three manifestos spoke of creating opportunities for 18-24 year olds. The irony of course is that by 2022, the number of people aged 16-49 in the workforce will have reduced by 700,000***.

While employers may be inclined, when developing their apprenticeship programmes to focus on the younger age group overlook older workers, demographic trends clearly show that modern workplaces are likely to comprise of a higher percentage of older workers.

The case for upskilling, retraining and challenging negative stereotypes of them in preparation for the future is compelling, now more than ever before.

What then can be done?

  • Understanding of both the physical, societal and psychological barriers older workers experience when accessing employment, and implementing policies to tackle them ;
  • Understanding the current legislative changes which affect and benefit older workers and implementing them in a positive and proactive manner.

Significant barriers to lifelong learning have been identified in a recent report from the Skills Commission – Spotlight On…Lifelong Learning for an Aging Workforce.

Health and disability as well as caring responsibilities are listed as two of the physical barriers for older workers remaining in employment. In total, around 20% of 45-59 year olds provide some form of informal care with women most likely to exit the labour market early to care for someone else. These workers form part of the ‘sandwich generation’ with responsibilities for both children and older relatives.

Of the psychological barriers, ageism with the negative attitudes towards older workers still prevents them from accessing work. These include wholly inaccurate assumptions such as, for example, that older workers take more time off sick and have difficulty adapting to change.

Employers are aware of positive changes introduced by the Equality Act 2010, and yet there have been further changes benefitting older workers. The right to request flexible working, for example, allows all workers who have been employed for 26 weeks to make a request to change their hours, times and/or place of work. The right does not compel employers to agree, yet it is proving popular and facilitating less traditional and more manageable ways of going about our working lives.

The recent introduction of the apprenticeship levy requires all employers with an annual pay bill of over £3m to pay 0.5% of their bill as a levy charge. In 2015-2016, 11.3% of those starting an apprenticeship were aged 45-59, a positive start.

As the working population increases it is likely that we will witness further legislative changes aimed at encouraging the training and upskilling of older workers. It is imperative for employers to inform themselves of training schemes on offer; to be aware of barriers preventing older workers accessing work; to train up managers in understanding these issues; to promote age-diverse teams;  to tackle negative stereotypes;  and think of better ways to appeal to and engage with older workers.

For further information contact an employment law specialist in our legal team on 01227 763939.


*Age is the biggest obstacle, People Management: July 2017

** Employee Outlook: Focus on employee attitudes to pay and pensions: Winter 2016-17; CIPD

***A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit: March 2015