As the number of workers aged over 70 almost doubles in the space of 10 years, do employers need to review their management practices?

Recent focus on the make up of modern workforces has centred on millennials and how particular workplaces and cultures are more likely to attract and retain millennial employees. While this has led to an increased awareness of certain business aspects, such as wellbeing and values, this may also have led to older workers falling by the wayside as employers seek to attract new employees.

What is, perhaps, going unnoticed is the increasing rate at which older employees are remaining in the workplace at an age where, previously, most had retired. Job site Rest Less has carried out analysis of official data to reveal that nearly one in 12 of those aged over 70 remain in employment, totalling 497,946 employees in 2019. When compared to the employment rate of over 70s in 2009, this figure has risen by 135% from one in 22. What may be surprising to some employers is that over 53,000 UK employees are aged 80 or above, with 25% of this number carrying out full-time employment.

With the default retirement age having been abolished in 2011, most employers removed their compulsory retirement policies as these became age discriminatory unless they could be objectively justified under the Equality Act 2010. This is a notoriously hard test to prove, although Oxford University has recently successfully defended its “Employer-justified Retirement Age” policy which requires staff to retire in the September before they reach the age of 69. An employment tribunal agreed that the policy, with an opportunity to seek an exemption, was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of providing opportunities for women, younger academic staff, those from an ethnic minority background and disabled individuals.

Although the increasing number of over 70s continuing to work does not mean that all of these individuals remain in full-time employment, managing older workers is a unique situation that some managers may have limited experience or training to deal with. Therefore, where an organisation employs older workers, there may be certain practices that require further consideration to ensure these remain appropriate, fair and non-discriminatory.

Preventing assumptions and bias in decision-making

When thinking about older workers, many employers may wrongly assume that these employees are likely to be slower or less productive when carrying out work. Indeed, when there is a capability issue, the conclusion that this is because of their age, rather than a training or understanding issue, is often made.

As age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, treating an individual less favourably because they are an older worker, or because other colleagues are likely to be younger than this individual, is likely to give rise to a discriminatory environment. Unconscious bias can also crop up when assumptions are made based on the perception of the individual due to their age.

To avoid the possibility of this occurring, managers can be provided with additional training that focuses on managing older workers, and how to prevent unconscious bias when making decisions that apply to these individuals. Carrying out a periodic review of management decisions, such as those relating to training, promotion or salary increases, etc may be prudent to analyse whether fair treatment is being afforded to all workers within the organisation.

Training and support provision

The view that older employees do not require equal training and development opportunities because they are going to spend less time in their employment, therefore the benefits of the investment will be lower, is clearly an unfair view. Providing development opportunities will help retain older employees who are likely to be more experienced, and perhaps more skilled, at carrying out their job role in relation to others who do not have extensive working experience. Not only will training older employees keep providing new challenges and experiences in their working life, it also ensures they remain sufficiently productive and capable of carrying out their job role to the required standard.

Alongside this, there is often a perception that older workers who have completed a greater number of years’ service may be more resistant to change, although this is an assumption that should be avoided. Perceived resistance may actually be due to a number of relevant factors that managers haven’t considered, such as having little training in any new ways of working or not understanding why the change has been introduced in order to apply this appropriately. These are management issues which are easily addressed, rather than being problems caused by employing those from an older generation, and managers will need to ensure they are capable of providing the appropriate workplace support in these circumstances.

Providing flexibility

It may be the case that most flexible working practices in an organisation are geared towards employees who require alternative working arrangements to start, or look after, a family. This can cover practices such as flexi-time, working from home or job sharing.

It is important to recognise that all workers can seek workplace flexibility, and older workers may have personal commitments or requirements which lead to them selecting a flexible employer. Managers need to ensure they are capable of handling flexible working requests from older workers, whether these are statutory or non-statutory requests from those with less than 26 weeks’ service. With the likelihood that many older workers are carrying out part-time or shorter hours working, it will also be key to ensure that managers are providing appropriate support during these times.

Any proactive reminders to staff members about flexible working can be equally made to older workers, and managers can make a timely reminder of this opportunity where older workers have made them aware that they wish to reduce hours. Rather than losing their extensive expertise and skill to another job role, providing an alternative working arrangement that suits their needs can retain them in your organisation.

Future planning

A common practice for most managers carrying out performance or review appraisals with employees is to ask them what their future plans for development and succession within the business are. Again, it will be clearly less favourable treatment to avoid asking this question to older workers where managers assume that they do not wish to develop or progress due to their age. Therefore, managers should continue carrying out management reviews and providing development opportunities wherever necessary.

One part of future planning for older workers is ensuring that supporting provisions are put in place and succession plans can be made where an employee intends to retire. Inviting an employee to a meeting and asking them when they intend to retire will be a discriminatory question, therefore, ensure a general question is asked about their future intentions within their current role. While certain employees will be hesitant to alert managers to their impending retirement, it will be crucial to know this information to ensure succession and training plans can be properly actioned. Managers will be responsible for creating an environment where older employees feel comfortable discussing matters such as retirement with them, and having managers who are capable of leading their teams in such a way that they create a positive and inclusive workplace culture can be key to this.

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