Older workers

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Jan Fekke Ybema, Femke Giesen, TNO, the Netherlands


Introduction

Due to an ageing population and global economic competition, there is a societal need for people to extend their working lives while maintaining high work productivity. This article presents an overview of the labour participation, job performance, and job characteristics of older workers in the European Union. The way in which several factors, including health, working conditions, skills and knowledge, and social and financial factors influence sustainable employability and the early retirement of older workers is also examined. Finally, a number of policy initiatives and measures are presented.


Ageing in Europe

Europe’s population is becoming progressively older. The proportion of the population aged 55 and over rose from 25% in 1990 to 30% in 2010 and is estimated to reach a peak of around 40% by 2060 [1]. The two main reasons of this ageing population are that Europeans are living longer than ever before, on average ten years longer than in 1960, and that fewer children are being born[2]. Among the individual Member States of the European Union, Germany and Italy have the highest proportion of those aged 55 and over (33%), whereas Ireland has the lowest share of those aged 55 and over (21%) [1].

The ageing of the population poses serious challenges for society. For example, it places strain on pension and social security systems, increases expenditure on health care and living arrangements for elderly people, and requires adjustments in the workplace for an ageing labour force[1]]. Moreover, the number of working age individuals (15–64 years) is already declining in Europe [3]. The European Commission forecasts that by 2030, the European Union will face a shortage of some 20.8 million people (7%) of working age [4].


Labour participation of older people

One way to tackle the challenges of an ageing European population is encouraging people to work for longer. Although employment rates for older workers (aged 55–64) have increased by nearly 10 percentage points in the decade of 2000-2010, these rates remain low relative to those for younger age groups. Only 3 out of 10 of those in the ‘pre-retirement’ age cohort (aged 60–64) [3] and about one in ten persons aged 65 and over in the EU-27 are in employment [5] .

Fortunately, it is expected that there will be a considerable increase in employment rates for older persons across the EU-27 for the next 50 years. Older women (aged 55-64) in particular are expected to gain a more prominent role in the EU-27 labour market. The growth in the employment rate for older women is higher than that for older men, and it is expected that this pattern will continue in the next decades [6].

In 2011, the employment rate of persons aged 55-64 years in the EU was 47%. However, there are considerable differences in this employment rate between Member States. The highest employment rate for the 55-64 age group was found in Sweden, i.e., 72%, whereas Slovenia, Malta, Hungary, and Poland had the lowest employment rates for persons aged 55-64, i.e., between 31% and 37% [7].


Ageing and work

There are many stereotypes about older workers. For example, older workers are often expected to be less motivated and productive than younger workers [8]. The reality is quite different and much more complex. Some abilities increase with age, and other new abilities emerge. There are significant inter-individual differences due to, among others, genetic factors, life-style, and work-related influences. In other words, age on its own does not determine health and job performance. The process of ageing does, however, involve changes in physical, mental and motor skills that can affect performance.

Job performance

It is a fact that as we become older, physical capacities decrease and cognitive functioning changes. Examples of physical deterioration due to ageing are loss of muscular strength and lung capacity. Also, from the age of 50, workers need more time to recover from work [9]. Poor health and indicators of health problems, for example backache and sleeping difficulties, increase with age. After the age of 60, however, there is a downward trend in health problems among working individuals. This is probably due to the “healthy worker effect” [10], i.e., individuals in poor health leave the labour market at a younger age than those in good health [11].

Physical health is also influenced by factors other than age, in particular life style and working conditions [12] Psychosocial risks and workers health, Health and well-being. There are thus large differences in health between individuals in the same age groups, and it can therefore be useful to use ‘functional age’ rather than ‘chronological age’ to indicate an individual's ability to work [13].

With regard to cognitive functioning, “fluid” intelligence (i.e., abilities which are not based on experience or education) tends to decline in older age. This implies that the ability to process complex information and to solve complex problems decreases [14]. However, these limitations in cognitive functioning and learning generally become apparent from the age of 65 onward [15], and often have few consequences for functioning at work [14] [16] [17]. Additionally, not all cognitive capabilities decrease when getting older. Experience, “crystalized” intelligence (knowledge), social and coping skills increase with age [14].

In general, an individual’s performance remains stable throughout their working career. Performance may decline due to changes in physical health and cognitive capabilities. But it appears that many older workers compensate for these losses through their more extensive work experience and knowledge [12] Positive Occupational Health Psychology.

Employability and development

Several studies show that employability and willingness to change, decline with age [18]. Research has also shown that older workers are less interested in opportunities for learning and development than younger workers [19] [20]. The percentage of workers who report that their job does not involve learning new skills increases by 10 percentage points from the age of 50 to 60+ [11]. Older workers also receive less formal training than younger workers [5], which indicates that employers also tend to invest less in their older than in their younger employees. The consequence of this decline in development may be the obsolescence of an employee’s skills, especially in the rapidly changing world of work Changing world of work. This may result in overall loss of performance and productivity [21].

Work satisfaction

There are quite large differences between the EU Member States in levels of work satisfaction among older workers. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have the highest levels of (very) satisfied age 50+ workers (93% and over), and Ireland has the lowest proportion of age 50+ workers who are (very) satisfied with their working conditions (56%) [6].

Older and younger workers do not differ in the level of their work satisfaction [18], and generally value similar aspects of their work. Both older and younger workers find responsibility and meaningful work very important in a job. However, older workers seem to be less interested in aspects such as a high salary and pleasant colleagues than younger workers [20].


Job characteristics

Sectors

Older workers tend to be overrepresented in agriculture, public administration, education, and health and social work [6]. As a consequence they may be more exposed to the consequences of current and future public spending cuts, leading to job insecurity and the risk of unemployment. In absolute terms, most people aged 50-64 work in manufacturing and construction [3].

Self-employment

Older workers are more often self-employed than younger workers. The proportion of self-employed people increases with age, up to 50% for the 65 and above age group. This is probably because self-employed people postpone retirement, compared to other workers in their age group, and many remain involved in agricultural activity for their personal consumption after retirement [7].

Part-time working

As age increases the proportion of persons working part time decreases, and then increases for those over 50. A quarter (26%) of those over 50 were employed on a part time basis in 2010 [11]. This share is higher than that of the whole working age population (19%) [7]. Older workers have different reasons for working fewer hours compared to the general working age population: often citing illness or disability (8% versus 4%) and family or personal responsibilities (24% versus 14%) as reasons for working fewer hours. Only a few older workers (0.4%) worked part-time for reasons of education or training, well below the average of the general working age population (10%) [6].

A higher proportion of older workers wish to reduce work hours than do younger workers. Amongst workers aged 50 to 59, 29% would like to work fewer hours. The main reasons given for their wish to work less are being tired, a deteriorating health, and a need for more time for their family [11] Work-life balance.

Working conditions

Older and younger age groups do not differ in terms of exposure to physical strain at work, including working in painful positions and a stressful work environment [11]. Although young workers are more likely to be involved in accidents at work than older workers Young workers, fatal accidents do occur relatively often among older members of the workforce; 46% of fatal accidents at work in the EU in 2008 took place among those aged 45 to 64 years [6].

Older workers are generally less exposed to demanding working conditions. Compared to younger workers, older workers are less often involved in night work and shift work Working time and are less often working at very high speed [11].

Furthermore, older workers report less social support from colleagues and managers than their younger counterparts. However, older workers report more decision latitude in their jobs, i.e., being able to change the order of tasks, work methods and the speed or rate of work, and being able to apply their own ideas, than do younger workers [11].

Job characteristics for workers over 65 years of age

In the Eurobarometer survey conducted in 2011, 41% of those aged 55 or more said they would like to continue working after they reached the age at which they are entitled to a pension [6]. However, at present only a small portion of those reaching the age of 65 actually continue working.

Workers older than 65 years of age are quite different from workers aged 55-64. They may work for several reasons. Some work due to the inadequacy of their pension income, while others may have an intrinsic and voluntary preference to work longer. In general, those who are in good health and who are highly educated are more likely to continue working beyond the age of 65[5].

Workers over 65 years of age often work under different job conditions. For example, almost 57% of these oldest workers work part-time. This is a significantly higher percentage than the 26% reported for the age group 50-64 [11]. Moreover, 50% of workers over 65 are self-employed, compared to 14% of those under 65. Farmers dominate this group of workers over 65 [5] .

Predictors of sustainable employability and early exit of older workers

Many workers leave the work force well before the official retirement age. To better understand the retirement process, an insight into people’s willingness and ability to work until the official retirement age is crucial. Knowledge of the factors that predict actual retirement is also necessary in order to develop policy and measures to encourage people to work longer.

Ability and willingness to continue working until the age of 65

Recent data showed that large differences exist in the EU-27 with respect to the ability to continue working. Overall, 30% of workers aged 50 to 59 expect that they will not be able to do the same job at the age of 60 [11], which ranges from 9% in Ireland to 65% in Slovenia. Member States with a low percentage of workers expecting to be able to do their job at age 60, generally also have a low proportion of workers aged 50 and older in the workforce. The ability to continue working also varies between sectors and occupations: older workers with physically demanding jobs more often think they will not be able to do their current job when they are 60. For example, craft and trade workers, plant and machine operators, and workers in elementary occupations are more negative about their ability to continue in their job than are managers, professionals, and technicians [5].

Current work ability, and work ability in the near future have frequently been studied. Work ability is the outcome of the balance between the individual’s resources and work-related aspects [21]. The work ability model distinguishes the following resources: (1) health and functional capacities (physical, mental, social), (2) education and competence, (3) values and attitudes, and (4) motivation. The work-related aspects in the model are (5) work demands (physical, mental), (6) work community and management, and (7) work environment. In one review study [22], poor work ability as assessed with the Work Ability Index [23] was associated with a high physical workload, poor physical work environment, high mental work demands, and lack of autonomy.

Several studies show that physically and mentally demanding work is negatively related to the ability to continue working until the age of 65. In a cross-sectional study of workers aged 55-64 in the Swedish healthcare sector [24], Nilsson and colleagues found that physically and mentally demanding work and a high work intensity were negatively associated with the perceived ability to continue working until the age of 65. In a recent longitudinal study [25], Geuskens and colleagues found that higher physical and emotional demands, and a lack of supervisor support lowered the ability to continue working until the age of 65. Moreover, this study found that higher physical and emotional demands, and bullying or harassment by colleagues or supervisors also lowered the willingness to continue working until the age of 65.

As well as the demanding nature of work, poor health, financially attractive exit arrangements [19] [25], age-related eligibility to retire, reduced workload [19], emotional exhaustion, a work handicap and a lack of supervisor support [25] may also negatively affect people’s motivation or ability to continue working. Kooij et al. (2008) also suggested that age norms and stereotyping by managers might reduce opportunities for promotion and training, and as a consequence, lower the motivation to continue working. Finally, a partner’s wishes and an increased value placed on leisure time seem to encourage the decision to retire [19]. This was also found in a recent longitudinal study by Geuskens et al. (2012) [25].

Good health, financial incentives to continue working, positive attitudes towards older workers among managers, a higher importance of work in life, and not intending to retire early if a partner does so were positively associated with willingness to work until the age of 65 [24]. Satisfactory use of competences and financial incentives (e.g. intending to work beyond age 65 to get a better pension) were also positively associated with the ability to continue working in the study by Nilsson and colleagues.

In summary, the current evidence suggests that work-related factors and health particularly influence the ability and willingness to continue working until the age of 65 Health and well-being.

Predictors of early retirement

In 2009, the average exit age from the EU-27 labour force was 61 years and five months. Most (61%) of those aged 50 to 69 who were retired in the EU-27 in 2006 did so because they had reached the statutory retirement age or they wanted to stop working. Almost one in six people retired as a result of losing their job or facing problems at work. [6].

Several work-related factors play a role in early retirement. Especially high physical work demands appear to be a key driver. In addition, high work pressure and low job satisfaction are also determinants[26]. A study among Dutch civil servants suggested that low appreciation at work contributed to early retirement [27]. Training of skills and knowledge may also postpone early retirement. Provision of and participation in education and training was associated with a reduced intention to retire early and a lower likelihood of actual retirement [28] [29].

In addition to these work-related factors, poor health, and a lack of physical activity in leisure time increased the likelihood of early retirement [26]. Some studies emphasize the importance of financial factors [30] and social factors[27] for early retirement. Various financial incentives, such as a lower financial reserve and a lower replacement rate (i.e., the pension benefits as a percentage of the final salary), decreased the likelihood of retiring early [30]. Employees with stronger support from their partners and supervisors for continuing employment were also less likely to retire early [27].

It can be concluded that working conditions, health, skills and knowledge, social factors and financial factors all play a role in the decision to either retire early or to continue working.

Policy initiatives and preventive measures

In seeking to increase the proportion of older people who remain in employment, many European governments have raised (or announced their intention to raise) statutory retirement ages and have reduced (or are planning to reduce) early retirement schemes [6]. Measures have also been taken to reduce alternative routes out of the labour force through unemployment, disability, or early pension benefits [2].

Member States are also seeking ways to encourage workers to stay in their jobs longer. These include policies that maintain and promote the health of workers What are occupational safety and health management systems and why do companies implement them?. Health promotion programmes, as part of age management strategies are important [31]. Eurofound has outlined the essential ingredients for good practice in age management [32]. These include, for example, the use of health experts to advise the organisation; training supervisors and key workers in health management techniques; health-promoting working time arrangements; and establishing mixed age groups to ensure that different age-specific performance potentials and competencies are optimally deployed.

There are very few interventions that specifically address the health and work ability of older workers [33] [34][35]. We believe that there is a need for future interventions that are tailored according to the strategies used by different age groups. Ilmarinen [21] emphasizes the need to promote work ability that affects the employment rate of aging workers, and stresses that, despite the concept of work ability being the same for all age groups, it is necessary to tailor measures to individual age groups. Examples of age specific measures which can improve the work ability of older workers include training supervisors in age management, the implementation of age ergonomics, worksite exercise programmes and tailored training in new technology. Continued training and education in order to improve employability and to counter skills obsolesce is also suggested by researchers [5]. In a study by the University of Warwick, evidence indicates that continuing training strategies are best embedded in a wider approach of age management [31]. The aim should be to keep the older worker connected to the organisation through work-related and work-based learning.

A recent study of human resource measures for older workers found evidence that the adapting the equipment in work places to the needs of older workers, and age-specific jobs for older workers contributed to their productivity [36]. Furthermore, mixed-age working teams were also associated with the higher productivity of both older and younger employees. These measures seemed more effective than work time reductions, or specific training for older workers.

One promising method for improving the working conditions of older workers is through Intervention Mapping, in which workers, employers, and other stakeholders participate in designing interventions Occupational safety and health management systems and workers’ participation. For example, an intervention among construction workers aged 45 and older was developed [37] which resulted in a tailored intervention that included visits to physical therapists to lower physical workload, a tool to improve the balance between work and recovery, and empowerment training to increase worker influence at the worksite.

It should be noted that older workers form a very diverse group, and not all older workers have similar needs or wishes with regard to their work. We therefore conclude that interventions to promote healthy and productive labour participation of older people should be tailored to the needs and wishes of older individuals. This can be achieved by active involvement of older workers in the selection and implementation of such interventions, and making idiosyncratic deals about the nature of the work.


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Links for further reading

Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Sustainable work and the ageing workforce, 2012. Available at: [1]

Eurostat - Statistics in Focus, European Union Labour Force Survey, 2012. Available at: [2]

Eurostat - Statistics in Focus, Active ageing and solidarity between generations, 2012. Available at: [3]

FIOH - Multidimensional work ability model, 2011. Available at: [4]

Gould, R., Ilmarinen, J., Järvisalo, J. & Koskinen, S.: Dimensions of work ability. ETK-Kela-KTL-FIOH, 2008. Available at: [5]

Ilmarinen, J., 'Promoting active ageing in the workplace', EU-OSHA, 2012. Available at: [6]

Nygård, C-H., Savinainen, M., Kirsi T. & Lumme-Sandt, K., 'Age Management during the Life Course - Proceedings of the 4th Symposium on Work Ability', Tampere University Press, 2011. Available at: [7]