Bernard Casey: The challenges of an ageing workforce


When it comes to the challenges surrounding the ageing workforce, [many employers] will be interested in how compensation strategies will have to be adapted, for example, in terms of pay, different benefit packages and training programmes. And behind all this is the question of whether older workers are as productive as their younger counterparts, more productive or less productive. And, if they are, in what ways.

More important, however, and more provocative, is the question of whether we shall even have the older workers we think we are going to have. Yes, we agree that pension ages should be higher, and we expect that a greater share of the workforce will be older. But what we need to ask is whether the higher retirement age will actually be reached and, if it is, by how many.

Longevity has been increasing; indeed, it was this that motivated the state to raise the pension age. However, this begs two questions. The first, whether the increase in longevity will continue as projected is by no means as clear as might be presumed.

But the answer to this is closely related to the answer to the second: whether an improvement in mortality necessarily means an improvement in morbidity. Put simply, will the extra years people might have be ‘good’ years? This has been a matter of concern for those planning health expenditures and the provision of social care. It should also be one for those of us concerned with future labour force developments.

What is of interest is the morbidity of those in their late 50s and through their 60s in the later stages of working life. Although many physically demanding jobs are gradually disappearing, and risk factors such as smoking are reducing, there is something else looming on the horizon. These are what we call lifestyle-induced diseases or non-communicable diseases ; for example, type two diabetes.

Factors such as obesity, which can be a contributor to cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal problems, is another area of concern.

Some wellbeing issues associated with mental health could also be partially attributed to lifestyle-induced stresses , such as tighter schedules and controls, and the difficulties of combining work with domestic life, which is not helped by increased eldercare responsibilities .

Such are the real challenges that employers will have to confront. What can employers contribute to overcoming these challenges? And who else, individuals and governments, has a part to play in this?

Bernard Casey is principal research fellow at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research.