Ageing is an inevitable one-way journey. But the length of that journey is increasing day by day as life expectancy continues to rise. In fact, it’s growing at such a rate that by the time you’ve finished reading this, your own life expectancy will have increased by around 12 seconds.
One consequence of this is that the demographics of the workforce are changing and more and more people are staying in work for longer as they get older. What does this mean for the workplace, the economy and employment law?
For decades, the labour market has operated on the assumption that people work for up to 40 years and retire at around 65. As fewer people retire, the pressure on jobs will significantly increase. If full-time working lives are routinely extended by an extra ten years or so - as we are already seeing - we’ll need an economy that can generate 25% more jobs, just to keep the figures stable.
Even assuming there will be enough jobs for everyone, the workplace of the future could potentially be staffed with up to five different generations. Will these groups be able to work happily together? Or will intergenerational conflict and age-based harassment flourish?
If the economy of the future fails to deliver the required increase in jobs, we might start seeing calls for the reintroduction of mandatory retirement. While this would free up jobs for the younger generation, it would also curtail the working lives of older people. With a fixed duration of working life, many will increasingly focus on saving enough for a prolonged period of retirementA shift in culture to a nation of savers could cripple sections of the economy that rely on consumer spending.
If in future people routinely work for 50 years or more, their skills are sure to need updating over time - not just to enable them to succeed in their work and keep pace with new technology and ways of working, but also to compete in the wider labour market. Currently, those working for businesses that employ over 250 people have the right to request time off for training, but with an ageing workforce it’s easy to see how this might be extended. Could employers even be legally obliged to provide training? With a widening skills gap and the potential economic benefits from closing it, such a policy could well start to find favour with politicians.
Young age discrimination?
In addition, OECD statistics suggest that literacy and numeracy among older people tend to be higher than for younger generations. The skills gap and demand for talent mean older age groups could be in high demand. Whereas until now age discrimination claims have largely been brought by older workers, we could start seeing the reverse. Will age discrimination complaints increasingly come from the younger generations?
The need to generate 25% more jobs mentioned earlier assumes older people will keep working full-time hours, but this may not be the case. Rather than a stark choice between being “in” or “out” of work, many are likely to seek (and financially require) the best of both worlds. People will want more personal time during “retirement”, but this will need to be funded by working part time. This is likely to entail employers having to manage employees working increasingly fragmented hours. Nowadays, flexible working requests are largely the preserve of new mums, but in the workplace of the future they could become a regular tool in the transition to retirement.
It is safe to assume that life expectancy will continue to rise for some time. However, life expectancy increases are outstripping healthcare capabilities: diseases which used to kill are now treatable, though often made chronic rather than cured. This means people are living and working longer, while often managing medical conditions. In the workplace of the future, it will become more crucial than ever for employers large and small to manage health issues and risks effectively.
Coping with the impact of an ageing workforce is likely to bring difficult challenges, yet there will be real potential benefits for employers who adopt a strategic approach towards “age proofing” their organisations and workplaces.