Not retiring: why Good Work matters

If we want to retain older workers we need to focus more on work that is flexible and good quality.

Happy older woman looking up studio shot


There’s been conflicting information on getting older workers back to work. A recent report from think tank Demos argues for early intervention to stop older workers leaving the workforce rather than trying to get those who have left to return.

Meanwhile, a report out this week from the International Longevity Centre suggests there are over a million older workers who are currently not working, for a mixture of reasons including redundancy, health issues or early retirement, who would like to work.

Statistics and surveys are never straightforward and often prompt more questions than they answer. I guess, for instance, you have to ask why someone took early retirement in the first place and what kind of health issue they have. For many it may be that life – caring responsibilities, health issues, bereavement and so forth – and work – especially keeping up with the fast pace of change and the increasing intensity of it – just got too much, particularly in recent years with all the turbulence we have been dealing with.

While there has been a lot of focus on getting people who have left back to work, the real problem coming down the line is the people now entering what is called middle age, many of who face even more stresses than the generation that came before them, certainly in terms of housing, the cost of living crisis, interest rate hikes, the crumbling of care support and so forth. Just how resilient can they be expected to be? I speak regularly to people who say that middle-aged women in particular are often on the very precipice, even if they look to outsiders as if they are coping. Covid has had a multiplicity of effects. For some it slowed things right down and that and bereavement or sickness meant they questioned what life is about. For others work intensified during the pandemic and they have had no breather since.

So how do we create a workforce which is ready for future pressures of fast technological change, longer working lives and greater turbulence in terms of climate change and all its associated impacts? One way is to focus on addressing some of the major stressors in terms of job insecurity, job flexibility and pay. The idea of Good Work has been around for some time – creating and training people for better quality, higher paid jobs – but a major report on it was shelved just after the Brexit vote and bits of it are only just recently filtering into the legislative process despite the urgency of the case for it. Yet this issue of Good Work is at the heart of future economic growth and social welfare.

The Resolution Foundation recently published a report calling for sector-based Good Work Agreements which would address poor pay, poor career development and job insecurity. This is surely the way forward as different sectors face slightly different challenges. Job flexibility must be part of this, but flexibility cannot come at the price of pay. There is no good reason that people should be paid less just because of the way they work. Far too many people have taken pay cuts to get flexible working and now find themselves having to take on more and more work to make ends meet. Yet they are willing to do so because that is the only way they can manage other responsibilities in their lives.

Good Work is not just about creating some low paid home-based jobs where people spend hour after hour on the screen, in endless zoom meetings with little break between them, with more and more work being piled on, unending new technologies to respond to and more. Yet too many of us are working in this way and barely making it through the week. Job design is vital and it needs constant revision, based on some proper time to talk to individuals, because the tasks that people are being asked to do are always creeping up. Those employers who fully grasp this will create a more sustainable workforce, but there needs to be recognition across the board of the cost of not doing this.

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