Not retiring: why we need more flex

Addressing age discrimination and providing more flexible options are two of the key ways to help older workers return to and stay in the workplace.

Mid life man at laptop working remotely


Older workers come in many guises. A 50 year old who works at a highly pressured desk-based job is very different from a 62-year-old carer or construction worker or an 83-year-old accountant. Many older workers don’t even like being called older workers, showing how internalised ageism is and how anxious we are to deny the reality that we age [if we’re lucky]. Others worry about older people being depicted as having grey hair. Not all over 50s have grey hair, they argue. Which is true. But quite a few do, even if they dye it so some articles should surely carry images of people with grey hair.

Maybe lumping everyone together is not useful – certainly not for policy purposes – but the general issue of how we address our ageing population is something that many societies are grappling with – France, for instance, where people are taking to the streets about a rise in the state pension age to 64 [whereas our Government has delayed plans to raise the UK state pension ago to 68 in the 2030s]. And some of the potential solutions seem to be ones that many older workers want.

Firstly, tackling age discrimination in recruitment processes, which comes up time and again. This all links back to mindset and how we view getting older. Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, says tackling age discrimination requires that we are first aware of it. She says: “All of us are ageist because we are bombarded with ageist messages from childhood. You cannot challenge bias if you are not aware of it. Unlearning is hard, but we need to challenge the underlying messages that to age is to fail. Otherwise we are colluding in our own disempowerment.”

The second general solution is flexible working. In our recent poll on the Budget flexible working was mentioned by almost everyone as something they needed or wanted.  Older people are, of course, not alone in wanting greater flexibility and the fact that no one group is homogeneous means flexibility makes sense generally. Whether it is due to caring responsibilities, ill health, disability, wanting to avoid a cliff edge retirement, building a portfolio career, studying to transition to another role or any other reason, flexible working is vital for attracting and retaining older workers.

Yet despite all the talk about flexible working since Covid, there are still not nearly enough flexible jobs being advertised to meet demand. Moreover, flexibility comes in many forms, from annualised hours and hybrid working to flexi hours and part-time working. Yet most of the recent debate has focused almost entirely on the hybrid part which doesn’t work for many jobs. A wider discussion about what jobs we have and what type of jobs we need would help move things forward. Why are all jobs based on a five-day week model with anything less than the five-day gold standard seeming somehow inferior? I was talking to Lloyds Banking Group recently, winner of our Best for Older Workers Award at the WM People Top Employers Awards. They are looking much more at what they call role architecture and more modular, task-based roles rather than assuming the full-time model is always the ideal. That’s progress, but it needs to be much more widespread.

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