Are employees and businesses prepared for extended working lives?

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Researchers at the University of Liverpool have been working with colleagues from the N8 Research Partnership and industrial and charity partners to look at how businesses are responding to a population which is working for longer.

The focus was on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) based in the engineering sector in the north of England, collating data from interviewing employers and employees, liaising with trade unions and employers organisations.

Among the employers, the researchers found that retirement was generally planned flexibly beforehand and employees and managers in SMEs negotiated the shift into retirement in more flexible terms than they had previously experienced, taking into account the company’s needs and staff need and ability.

These companies also had ways of accommodating older staff, but expected staff to take into consideration the company’s needs.

Problems may be experienced by those who have prepared to retire at 65 but find they must work longer and there was a need to understand different implications of changes to retirement policy for different people in different SMEs.

Among the older workers surveyed there were concerns about the rising pension age, but workers were open to the idea of working longer if the work which they do is engaging, valued, and flexible enough to provide good work-life balance.

Older workers felt that they still have something to contribute to their workplaces and a high proportion were open to the idea of spending their time sharing their knowledge by mentoring younger colleagues.

The survey found that older workers pay attention to their employer’s approach to age and diversity and that people who consider their employers, managers and unions as well aware of the importance of age inclusivity and as treating workers equally regardless of age, also reported higher planned retirement ages and better quality of life than those who did not.

People who found it easy to talk to their line managers about their work performance, retirement plans and any support which they need on the job were also more amenable to considering phased retirement options like part-time working or moving to a less demanding role.

Dr Kate Bennett, who is leading the research team, commented: “Although the majority of workers aged over 55 are employed by SMEs, little attention has been paid to this sector, which manages HR issues differently from large businesses and is vulnerable to major labour market changes like an ageing workforce.”

The project, ‘Extending Working Lives: How are employers and employees responding to the external drivers to extend working life with an SME focus?’, is a collaborative programme between the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, and academics from Newcastle and York, with support from groups such as Age Inclusive, Years Ahead, Red Embedded and Age UK.

The project was made possible by the N8 Industry Innovation Forum, which facilitates collaboration between academics and industry through which they can initiate projects of mutual relevance, on areas such as healthy ageing.

The N8 Industry Innovation Forum connects businesses with over 15,000 academics and cutting edge research equipment across these institutions.

Maggie Winchcombe OBE, co-founder of the project partner Years Ahead said: “We have been pleased to be part of this project with Liverpool, Newcastle and York Universities because of the collaborative way it has been run and the new insights we have gained about the challenges for other small businesses and their employees in keeping working  for longer.”

The research findings were disseminated at a briefing at the Department of Work and Pensions, Ageing Society and State Pension Directorate in London on 1 May.

The event was attended by a range of stakeholders in the project, and the keynote address was given by former Labour MP Andrew Bennett.