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Making employment an attractive and healthy option for all employees
regardless of age


Making employment an attractive and healthy option for all employees regardless of age
By Catriona Watt, legal expert at www.thefutureperfectcompany.com and a solicitor at Fox, a City law firm specialising in employment, partnership and discrimination law.

Last month's 'We are Enabled by Design' event at the Design Museum in London sought to reframe the ageing and disability debate by looking at how universal design can help to support independent living and working. The 'Future of the Workplace' workshop focused on barriers in the workplace, particularly in relation to disabled and older workers, and examined alternative approaches to working.

It became clear during the workshop that changing business' attitudes to and perceptions of older workers are the greatest challenges to enabling older workers to remain in the workplace. Even if flexible working and phased retirement policies are in place, changing hearts and minds of staff as a whole can be difficult. Participants at the conference considered that employers were afraid to take the risk of employing or retaining older workers. Changing perceptions and taking advantage of valuable experience, conscientious mentoring and empathy with clients offered by mature workers are at the core of employing older workers past retirement age.

The continuous increase in life expectancy poses big challenges for the workforce. Birth rates are not high enough to replace the population so a declining number of people of working age are available to support an increasing number of people in retirement. Extending working lives by one and half years is estimated to reduce government borrowing by almost �15 billion. And, apart from this benefit to society as a whole, the fact is that many employees actually want to continue working past normal retirement age on a modified and flexible work schedule.

Although extending working life has always been high on any government's agenda, little has been done so far to create conditions to enable people to work beyond retirement age. Currently the law allows employers to impose a default retirement age (DRA) of at least 65. Implementing a DRA of less than 65 without an objective legitimate justification for doing so is age discrimination under the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006.

Our new coalition government is planning to phase out the DRA from April 2011. Many believe this is the first step in abolishing discriminatory attitudes to older workers by removing the safety net for employers and perhaps encouraging employers to consider alternative approaches to flexible working. It is also likely to prevent businesses from using the DRA as a substitute for performance management. Instead employers will have to ensure they have an effective performance management system in place with regular appraisals and clearly defined roles and objectives.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently published findings from its survey of 1,500 workers aged 50 to 75. The report concluded that abolishing the DRA on its own will have little impact on extending working life. It must be combined with a number of other concerted measures to tackle stereotyping and to enable older workers to remain economically active. The EHRC believes this should include better training and development for the over 50s, health programmes to promote the well-being of older workers, a media campaign to tackle ageism and an overhaul of recruitment practices to encourage recruitment of people of all ages.

The EHRC also considers that the right to request flexible working should be extended to everyone. Its research showed that older workers are more likely to remain in employment if they are given the right to work flexibly. The EHRC wants the government to consider providing incentives to employers who offer flexible working practices to older workers and to fund the provision of age management and flexibility training to managers. Appropriate training in dealing with older workers working flexibly is essential as flexible working functions best when workforces share the responsibility and incentive to make the system work.

To change attitudes to older workers, we need a collaborative effort across a spectrum of government bodies as well as industry. Finland launched its successful National Program on Ageing Workers in 1998. This involved a broad media campaign promoting a positive image of older workers including TV and radio broadcasts blasting age discrimination and linking better health to staying on the job for longer. The program countered the myth that older workers are less productive. The goal was to create a positive image of older workers and develop a national consensus on working longer. The Finnish pension scheme was also reformed providing a carrot to those who stayed in their jobs for longer. As a result of this initiative the proportion of Finns aged 55-64 in the workforce increased by almost 15 percent.

We can learn important lessons from Finland on how to make employment an attractive and healthy option for all employees regardless of age.

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