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Viewpoint: Canada Life’s Paul Avis: What can employers do to support older workers?

Protection is just one of the benefits businesses need to think about
Paul Avis

“The man who works and is not bored is never old,” said Spanish composer Pablo Casals in 1985, but in 2019, we cannot avoid the fact that UK workforce is ageing.

This is a trend that shows no sign of stopping: by 2050, one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 years or older.[1] Meanwhile, recent research from Canada Life Group Insurance reveals that nearly three quarters of UK employees won’t be able to retire by the age of 65. [2]

While inflation has slowed in recent months, the rising cost of necessities has hit employees across the country, as have poor savings returns from low interest rates. Over the past years, this has forced people to delay their retirement plans.

Drivers behind the UK’s ageing workforce

Many of us will not realise we need to work for longer until we enter our late 50s or early 60s. “Generation X” – the popular term for people aged roughly between 35 and 54 – is most likely to work beyond 65. This age group is also at the peak of its financial responsibilities [3] and is struggling to save for retirement, while also providing financially for their children and potentially their parents too. One in five (20%) expect to retire after their 75th birthday.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – not everyone begrudges the thought of working beyond 65. Many UK employees cite non-monetary reasons for wanting to work beyond the traditional retirement age. The social component a working environment brings for older people cannot be underestimated, and many see no point in retiring as long as they enjoy their job and the benefits it brings.

At the moment, the UK is not prepared to support an ageing workforce. A recent report by accountancy firm PwC revealed that the UK economy might be accruing a loss of nearly £200bn per year to GDP because it is not catering sufficiently for an older workforce. [4] With only 8% of UK employees believing that the government promotes the support of older workers, the opportunity lies with employers to address this issue.

Systems of support

Any support system should be rooted in the HR department. For example, income protection, life insurance and critical illness cover provide invaluable comfort for those who fear external factors like their health might impact their ability to work into old age.

Employers should also consider the changes they could make to the physical office space to better support older workers. For example, 10 million people in England and Scotland suffer from persistent back pain, a condition that becomes more common with increasing age. [5] Small changes to office equipment, such as providing adjustable or more comfortable seating, can make a big difference and create a more supportive environment for older workers.

Retaining and retraining for a range of skills

It’s not just about providing the right equipment though. In the case of older workers, a supportive environment also means that (re-)training and upskilling opportunities should be made available.

There is a persistent misconception that older workers are slower to learn new skills than younger employees, and so there is an underlying assumption that investing in training for them does not yield as big a return.

But on the contrary, research shows older employees yield higher returns from informal and role-relevant training rather than wider business or industry training [6], which can be more cost-effective and has motivating effects on the entire workforce.

Changing perceptions

The training and support of older workers must be supplemented with a real effort to change negative perceptions about older people in the workforce. In 2019, around one in seven (14%) UK employees are still concerned that older workers make it harder for young people to move up the career ladder, or that they don’t have the right skills to offer anything relevant to a 21st century workforce.

To support an ageing workforce, employers need to encourage inclusive working practices and skill sharing across all ages. Employers have a significant role to play in changing the way we view older workers, and often small changes can have a big impact. Nearly half (41%) of people in the UK are worried that their health will make it difficult to work past the age of 65.

By adapting and providing more support for older workers, employers will be in a better place to engage, retain and support them and ultimately benefit from their contributions.

Paul Avis is marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance


[1] ONS: Living longer and old-age dependency – what does the future hold? 24 June 2019

[2] Canada Life Group Insurance: Over 23 million UK employees to work beyond the age of 65 as rising costs and poor returns on savings begin to bite, 29 May 2019

[3] Canada Life Individual Protection research, March 2018

[4] PwC Golden Age Index: How well are the OECD economies harnessing the power of an older workforce? 2018 update

[5] Arthritis Research UK: State of Musculoskeletal Health 2018

[6] University of Wuerzburg, Faculty of Business Management and Economics: Training older employees: what is effective?, 2015