/Why HR really needs to understand and plan for the UK’s ageing working population

Why HR really needs to understand and plan for the UK’s ageing working population

 Steve Herbert, Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits, discusses why HR professionals need to think differently in a difficult recruitment market

I’m getting old.

This is an inescapable fact, and not one that bothers me that much.  As comedian Dave Allen once said;

“I don’t mind getting old… not when you consider the alternative.”

But it does feel like the world is starting to view me differently.  Last year I passed the not insignificant milestone of half a century on the planet, and ever since I have been bombarded with advertising messages encouraging me to plan for my funeral costs.  These reminders of my mortality don’t leave me feeling particularly positive or empowered.

Yet the reality is that I remain some 17 years short of my State Pension Age, and still very much in full time employment.

The national picture

Of course I am far from alone in being an older worker.  The UK population is now ageing rapidly, and it follows that the average age of British workers is also increasing.  Over the last half a decade the number of workers aged 50 and above has boomed, from 1 in 4 of the working population to around a third of all workers today, at a time when younger worker numbers are actually decreasing.  The Office for National Statistics chart (below) captures this change in national demographics rather well.

Aside from the ageing population issue, there are three additional factors contributing to the increase of older people in employment:

  • The UK’s default retirement age was abolished in 2011.
  • The State Pension Age is continuing to increase
  • New flexibilities in accessing private retirement savings were introduced in 2015

These three factors will all doubtless add to the number of older workers that choose to stay in some form or full or part-time employment.

At the other end of the age scale it should be noted the supply-line of younger EU workers has already been drastically reduced as a result of the Brexit debate.  Many UK employers have been heavily reliant on this grouping of younger workers in recent years, so it follows that this change also represents a problem for British businesses.

Do employers yet recognise this as an issue?

So with the supply of younger workers declining, the reality is that employers in all sectors must prepare to change their practices to attract and retain older workers.  Yet it appears that not enough organisations are actively looking at this issue.  A survey of 500 UK employers undertaken last year by The Centre for Ageing Better found that:

  • Only 1 in 5 employers were discussing the ageing workforce strategically
  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of employers are unprepared for growing numbers of older workers

These finding suggest that employers are either not aware of, don’t believe, or don’t yet care enough about the significant change in workforce demographics that must lie ahead for the UK.  This is worrying given that it is generally accepted that an older workforce will require different support and management techniques to those of their younger colleagues.

Why do older employees need different support?

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s report on “Older People in Employment”   found that (after age discrimination and ageism);

“health conditions and caring responsibilities are two of the biggest factors that result in people leaving the labour market early, or that prevent them from returning.”

These two factors are indeed tangible obstacles for many older workers, but are surely not an insurmountable challenge for HR professionals to resolve.  So tackling these issues should be a high priority for employers who must aim to retain the skills and goodwill of older staff in the new recruitment world.

One easy fix – and indeed quick win – for employers and employees alike is the use of flexible working wherever it is practical and possible.  But employers can and indeed should go further.  So let’s look at the two potential problem areas identified above in turn:

Health conditions

Around 1 in 3 of the UK workforce suffers from a long-term health condition (LTC). Such conditions can often be controlled via changes in lifestyle and/or medication, and many such workers are able to fully undertake their duties without any noticeable damage to their productivity.

But for others the presence of a long-term health condition can be much more difficult.  According to a 2015 report by the Work Foundation, 42% of those with an LTC feel that the condition does indeed impair their output.  And 14% of the working age population in England actually has more than one LTC.  It follows that this grouping is even more likely to see a negative impact in the quality of their work.

The above issue is likely to be further magnified by an ageing workforce, as age invariably brings increased health challenges.  So employers with older workers may well have to find and fund more robust health and wellbeing arrangements to support employees.  This should of course include a comprehensive Private Medical Insurance offering and/or a quality Cash Plan.

Another significant area to look at is the management of sick leave for older workers.  This is self-evident when you consider this sentence from the “Older People in Employment Report”:

“While older workers tend to have fewer instances of sick leave than younger people, when they are off work it tends to be for longer periods”

It is therefore apparent that employers need to ensure support, medical assessment, and appropriate interventions are available to older workers who are likely to be absent from work for more than a few days.  The logical conclusion here is that HR professionals should be seeking comprehensive and effective use of Early Intervention Services (often provided for free as part of an Income Protection policy) and/or Occupational Health solutions for their organisation.

Caring Responsibilities

In 2011 around 1 in 9 UK employees was also doubling as an unpaid carer, and Carers UK estimate that there will be a significant increase in this number in the coming years.  This is a particularly relevant finding for this article given that the prevalence of caring for others peaks between ages of 50 and 64.*

There is little doubt that the strains of working full or part-time coupled with those of caring for an ill or elderly relative are significant and can impact the employee’s performance.  A 2016 report regarding working carers found:

  • Two thirds (66%) had to give up work or reduce hours
  • 4 in 10 (41%) said their work had suffered
  • 28% reported nor pursuing or turning down a promotion

Any or all of the above are genuine concerns for employer and employee alike, yet some relatively simple steps can be taken to minimise the potential issues and better support the worker.

Firstly I would encourage HR to identify which employees may also be doubling as carers.  Without this key information it’s possible that available support may not be targeted at the right employees.

The next step will be to ensure that all Line Managers understand the issues and are suitably trained to offer assistance and/or direction to any employee working under such pressures.

Finally it is strongly suggested that HR professionals review their organisations Employee Benefits offering to provide targeted assistance to working carers.  Items such as Employee Assistance Plans, workplace Financial Education, Stress Management workshops/tools, and a better understanding of early access to Pension funds can all prove very useful to those older employees facing the significant extra pressures of doubling as an unpaid carer.

So what should HR do now?

The bottom line is that employers need to recognise the reality of the UK’s ageing workforce.  The organisations that react quickest and most decisively will be the best placed to reap the rewards of a happy & healthy group of older workers.

The reality is that good employees remain good employees regardless of age, but older workers face new challenges and perhaps perceive things differently to their younger colleagues.  This saying captures the mood for many such employees:

“If you think pushing 50 is hard, wait till you start dragging it”

A major challenge for HR professionals into the 2020’s will be to better support the increasing numbers of older workers as they drag their significant birthdays behind them.

 *Source: Chief Medical Officer for England Report 08/12/16

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.