Innovation expert Eric Kihlstrom talks about the recent All-Party Parliamentary Group report on ageing and how work and attitudes to ageing are central to changing the conversation on demographic change.
Any attempt to address ageing workforce issues has to begin with changing people’s mindsets, according to an expert on longevity.
Kihlstrom is Head of Industry Collaboration at Longevity International, which provides the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Longevity. The APPG recently published The Health of the Nation: A Strategy for Longer Healthier Lives report which highlights the issues that need to be tackled in order for everyone to have five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035 and to narrow the gap between the richest and poorest.
The report focused on various different streams from behavioural change to science and technology. For Kihlstrom jobs are central to health and well being. In his previous role at Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, he was head of the Healthy Ageing Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund whose Ageing Society Grand Challenge promoted innovation across four pillars. Two of them link to jobs, says Kihlstrom – financial well being and legacy & purpose.
He says healthy ageing is something that needs to be looked at through a life course approach. “If we want to help people age healthily, we need to do so from conception,” he states. That means tackling everything from childhood poverty and education to access to good quality jobs and preparing people for our age of digital disruption.
He cites how Finland mitigated the fall-out from the break-up of Nokia, which previously accounted for a significant part of the economy, through investing in people and particular regions.
In addition to preparing people for industrial change, Kihlstrom says it is important to prepare them for winding down or adapting their career as they get older so that they do not face a “cliff edge” when they come up to retirement. Work often provides a sense of purpose and so stopping suddenly can be particularly hard. More could be done, he says, to promote part-time or flexible working in later life and to make the business case for doing so. For instance, employers could do more to show they appreciate the knowledge and experience their older workers have and make it easier for them to mentor younger workers and pass that on. That would provide benefits all round. Moreover, research shows the productivity gains of multi-generational management teams.
Kihlstrom thinks employers who do understand the benefits could be doing more to highlight case studies and good practice in this area. “We need to show what good looks like,” he says.
He adds that there are companies addressing things like training and relocation for older workers and midlife MOTs, but the bigger issue for him is changing attitudes, often among older people themselves. HR has an important role to play in this, but Kihlstrom says businesses will only make the changes when they see the benefits.
“The problem is that our culture and social stereotypes have not caught up with science,” he says. “There is a big hole in our life map with regard to the ‘young old’. Last century we created teenagers. Now in the 21st century people are living longer and they have a different mindset. It is not so much about age, but about people’s needs and aspirations.”
For Kihlstrom, an important question is whether it is more important to focus on older workers in the greatest need or on issues facing the majority. He suspects for businesses the “low hanging fruit” will be an easier sell – encouraging them to reach out to the many older workers who need just a little support and a change of attitude to enjoy their working lives for longer. Other organisations will target those most in need and the two approaches can work in tandem. “We need to see our ageing population as an opportunity,” says Kihlstrom. “Attitude affects ageing and that affects how we work. Ageing is malleable and comes down to people’s attitude to it.”