Helping the older worker to thrive

A think tank has recommended that working into older age can benefit health and wellbeing. Ella Rhodes asked psychologists what they made of the Centre for Social Justice recommendations.

30 September 2019

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), co-founded and chaired by former Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has suggested the state pension age should increase to 75 by 2035. The thinktank, which was the first to propose the controversial Universal Credit scheme, released the report Ageing Confidently; supporting an ageing workforce as part of its Future of Work research programme (sponsored by Deutsche Bank and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation). A number of other recommendations include increasing access to flexible working, training, occupational health and mental health support, including so-called ‘mid-life MOTs’.

The Centre for Ageing Better, an independent charitable foundation, recently released a report which expanded on what could be included in these mid-life MOTs. It suggested that employees should be encouraged to take stock of their wellbeing, both psychological and emotional, as well as their general health, finances, career and retirement plans.

The CSJ suggests its own recommendations would ‘provide older people and employers with the support needed to unlock the potential of this demographic and enable older people to access the benefits of work’. But what are these benefits of work? And do we know enough about the psychological toll of working late into life?

One 2016 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found being one year older at the age of retirement was associated with an 11 per cent lower risk of death, independent of many other social and health-related factors. Unhealthy retirees also had a lower risk of death when they retired later. Another study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, published in 2014, found those who worked in mentally-demanding jobs had better cognitive functioning prior to retirement and a slower decline in cognitive ability post-retirement. [See our Research Digest for more on this research]

Professor of Occupational Health Psychology Gail Kinman (University of Bedfordshire) said this report, while considering psychological evidence, would have benefitted from occupational and health psychology perspectives. ‘We need to highlight the health benefits of working longer, but it is crucial that people have a sense of autonomy over the type of work they do and the hours they work. Many older workers feel that being “forced” to work for longer has contravened the psychological contract they have with their employers when they were looking forward to a healthy and happy retirement.’

The report does recognise the benefits of flexible working on wellbeing – particularly important for those balancing work with physical health problems and care for family members. ‘It isn’t enough to provide access to flexible working though,’ Kinman said. ‘There is strong evidence that the uptake of flexible options can be stigmatised as workers may be seen as less committed.’

Occupational Psychologist Gail Lincoln, featured in The Psychologist Guide to… Retirement which was sent out with the November issue, said the overall tone of the paper suggested that working longer is better, which is supported by some evidence. It also suggested the retirement age is 100 years out of date due to an increase in life expectancy, yet this does not necessarily apply to the most deprived in the population. ‘The paper makes the point that healthy life expectancy is not keeping up with the increase in life expectancy. This potentially immediately weakens the initial argument for working longer.’

Lincoln said there were two other difficulties with the position the report took: choice and homogeneity. ‘The paper refers to “The Missing Million” who are not working but would like to. The point is well made… that many will be carers and have little choice, in addition to the inequalities of opportunity and ageism.’ Relatives, and particularly middle-aged women, often bear the brunt of caring for older people. The report stated that half of those not working just before retirement age have been prevented from doing so because of caring responsibilities. ‘This concurs with findings of my research,’ Lincoln said. ‘More than half of the 60- to 75-year-old women stated life-changing decisions had been put on hold due to the need to care for ageing partners or parents, also for grandchildren. This included decisions about moving for work, accepting paid-work and socialising.’

The CSJ report, Lincoln added, also falls into a familiar trap of treating older people as a homogeneous group. ‘Statistics are easy to manipulate by biased or incomplete presentation and interpretation. Overall trends relative to the EU indicate that whilst all countries have an increasing percentage of older people, the UK has the fastest rising fertility rates and relatively high levels of immigration of mainly younger people of all EU countries. These factors, in 2010, moved the UK from 2nd to 15th out of 27 EU countries for older people as a percentage of the population… we’re predicted to further drop to 23rd by 2035. This is a more positive comparative picture and is less alarmist than some of the figures used in the paper.’

Lincoln agrees, however, that an increasing percentage of older workers demands a greater level of support for people to remain in work if they choose to. Dr Nancy Doyle, an occupational psychologist and the founder and CEO of Genius Within, suggested that we need to start thinking about retirement more creatively, and that a single broad-brush policy will not work. ‘Anyone can plainly see that we cannot grow population exponentially, we already need three earths to provide resources for our current use of raw materials and carbon: the retirement Ponzi scheme has got to stop! Those who are most likely to suffer are manual workers and those without private provision, which will exacerbate social injustice. Is there a third way? Can we look at work itself differently in order to accommodate changing patterns across the lifespan?

Doyle points out that our current worklife assumption is that individual careers ‘progress up the ladder, and then fall off the top. Even with portfolio careers, the expectation is of gaining and building on skills and value so that the point of retirement is at the peak of earnings. However, using the portfolio career model, we could create a “career pyramid” instead of a career ladder.’  

Doyle pointed to public sector workers who have gained skills, knowledge and experience over the decades but disappear when they retire. ‘This seems a waste of resources. I can quite see why firefighters, police, nurses and teachers cannot maintain the pace of full-time front-facing employment beyond their fifties or sixties. However, for many who are lucky enough to retain reasonable health beyond middle age, their intellect skills do not evaporate! Could health and safety professions adopt ex-firefighters and police? Could community nurses be ex-A&E? Could school inspectors and exam authors/markers be ex-teachers?’ She suggested that approaching public sector careers in this way could reduce the costs of retirement to the public and provide a ‘useful outlet for wise owls’. 

This career-pyramid approach, Doyle said, could address declines in mental wellbeing and health in retirement which may in part be due to the abrupt transition. ‘By smoothing the process we experience less of a jolt, and enjoy the feeling of being valued for experience and wisdom. Working into our seventies through choice and invitation could be motivational. And is it really unconventional?  Consider the age of the top three democratic candidates for the US presidency right now! Workplaces are going to have to accommodate the aging workforce, whether we like it or not. The world of work is already shifting to accommodate disability, technology is revolutionising the potential for remote working, flexitime is no longer an odd request. In these changing norms the older worker could thrive.’

- Coming soon… The Psychologist Guide to Retirement.