With the default retirement age soon to be a relic of the past, DeeDee Doke discovers that the greater battle is to change both workers’ and employers’ attitudes to age.

Chris Ball fixes a steely eye on the interrogator in front of him and leans forward in his seat. “You’re looking at a 65-year-old man who’s just ridden from Blackheath on his bike to central London,” he says of his nearly 10-mile commute to work. “I’m still ambitious. I’m running an organisation that is quite demanding in terms of the output and so forth, with plenty of opportunities for creative ideas.

“There are literally millions of people like me who are out there at the moment who are keen to work, have got energy and have also got the benefit of experience,” Ball continues. “Not everybody wants to work full time - but many do. And if told they’re wanted, and their abilities and contributions are recognised, they will do an excellent job in all kinds of organisations.”

Ball is the chief executive of The Age and Employment Network (TAEN), an independent not-for-profit organisation which aims to help remove age barriers to employment. For Ball, TAEN and others at the forefront of advocating an end to the UK’s default retirement age (DRA) of 65, the government’s recent decision to relegate it to the past from next year was a victory towards keeping more older people who want to work, in work.

But the thornier hurdle is actually to get more senior members of the population into jobs - after redundancy, a period on incapacity benefits, caring for families, or even simply the desire for a career or job change. That’s in spite of anti-age discrimination in employment legislation which took effect in 2006 (the Age Regulations 2006). “That’s where the real problem is,” Ball says. “The labour market is unwelcoming to people in their 50s unless they have a rare skill or are in relatively senior positions. The people in the middle cohort are finding it more difficult.”

Unflattering and untrue stereotypes persist about older workers: they lack drive and energy, suffer frequent illness, can’t learn new skills or keep up with modern technology.

And even though Ball is living proof that such generalisations miss the boat, he and others recognise with considerable concern that an all-too common reluctance to recruit people of a certain age will linger well past 6 April 2011, when the DRA will end.

Recruiters must “confront these sorts of attitudes”, he says. “They know it’s [sic] wrong, and actually they know it’s not in the best interests of their clients as well.

Everybody knows it is happening, and in a sense, I think, they are unfortunately complicit in ageist recruitment practice.” He adds, “They probably feel they can’t do much about it. But they could.”

“You’re not going to get a cultural change with employers overnight,” warns Julian Rawel, director of executive education and associate dean of employer engagement, Bradford University. “Employers probably aren’t going to wake up on 6 April 2011 and think, ’We’re in a whole new age now and it’s fantastic.’ They’re actually going to be very nervous about this. There has to be a change in mindset for people.”

The recent economic downturn and its painful aftermath aren’t helping. “I think life has changed forever as a result of this recession,” Rawel goes on to say. “Everybody’s looking at being ’leaner and meaner’, so to speak. It’s going to be very difficult to find jobs for everybody.”

At the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), an independent network of employers who recognise the need to attract and retain valuable employees whatever their age, campaign director Rachel Krys argues that the time has come for a reconsideration of working life generally, particularly in light of changing demographics and longer lifespans. She envisions a future in which people are “a productive part of the workforce in different ways at different points, suiting your life stage and physical capacity, and continuing to engage you and be an interesting opportunity for you, the individual”.

She concedes recruitment of older people is “really hindered by the DRA at the moment” but adds that because of the demographic tide of people who will be 50 or over in just a few years to come, “in the next five years, we are going to see more older people looking for work. We will see more people choosing not to retire. There is going to be an inevitability of the ageing population that we all have to get our heads around,” Krys says. “We’ve all known that ’jobs for life’ are a thing of the past. For a long time now, we’ve had these white collar ’portfolio careers’ talked about. I think we need to take that concept, and it needs to become a reality for a much wider group of people.”

As Krys sees it, people will increasingly have two, three or more careers in a lifetime, broken up by periods of retraining and reskilling throughout their lives, possibly into totally different fields than those in which they previously worked. Apprenticeships for older people should play a part here, she suggests.

Unfortunately, “at the moment, none of the structures are in place to allow that to happen” widely, she says. “People are thinking about ’young’ blood rather than ’new’ blood into their organisation. I think the individuals themselves are not thinking that this is a possibility for them. And unfortunately, the jobs market isn’t built to challenge that perception. But I do think that we’re going to have to move to a place where it is.”
Employers’ typical view that “potential” is a characteristic only of the young must also be dispelled in the world of work - perhaps to take a tip from the show business world, in which a performer like blues musician Seasick Steve can be honoured as the best breakthrough act of the year at the still rocking age of 66.

“Employers have got to be prepared to take a punt on potential - the potential of the individual, however old they may be,” TAEN’s Ball urges. “They’ve got to learn to spot it, treasure it, and give it a chance.”

At the coal face

In spite of pessimism from the experts about immediate large-scale acceptance of recruiting and retaining older workers, age is no barrier to getting a job, or even an apprenticeship, with some forward-thinking UK organisations. Often, the challenge of finding the right people drives the pragmatism in overlooking chronological data. But then they find that the benefits are significant. Here are some experiences from the front line:

SIMON FENNELL, RESOURCING TEAM LEADER, CARILLION Fennell and his team recruit “a couple of thousand people” a year for permanent jobs and “upwards of 15,000 to 20,000” for temporary positions. “We have such a large number of roles we have to recruit for, and such a wide variation of different roles, many of which are technically difficult or significant in some way, that we have to consider the broadest possible section of the community,” Fennell says. “So we will consider, and do consider, absolutely everybody.” Often the most difficult to fill are highly skilled engineering positions. Fennell anticipates that the DRA’s end will mean the most skilled professionals will consider remaining in the workforce longer – a potential bonus for Carillion. “It can take 15 to 20 years for a senior engineer to be ready and able to take on some huge scale projects,” Fennell says. “We just can’t find people early in their careers. So if we’ve got an employee who’s going to be with us a bit longer, that works for us.”

MANDY FERRIES, HEAD OF PERSONNEL AND TRAINING, JD WETHERSPOON Prompted by the introduction of the Age Regulations 2006, the pub firm ended its own retirement age a few years ago. Another aim was “to make sure that our staff base reflected the customer base”, Ferries says. And the initiative has worked; customer feedback has been very positive. “You have to have a leap of faith, but it’s been a really positive experience for us.”

MELANIE FLOGDELL, HEAD OF HR POLICY, CENTRICA The energy business expanded its apprenticeship programme to older workers a few years ago, and is now looking at how it will phase out its own company DRA of 65 with regard to issues such as pensions, manpower planning, and educating managers about appropriate conversations about career planning. “It will be a big cultural shift,” she says. However, over 65s already make up 2-3% of Centrica’s workforce; the company currently approves about 90% of its over 65s’ requests to continue working.

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