Opportunities to work beyond retirement age are not consistently supported in UK business despite new legislation, Middlesex researcher concludes
Dr Matt Flynn, a researcher at Middlesex University’s Business School, has just published new findings about older workers in the UK, suggesting that current HR policies fail to support managers who are sympathetic to this group of workers. The publication of Dr Flynn’s research coincides with calls this week by MPs, equalities groups and older people’s interest groups to end compulsory retirement at the age of 65 and also reflects a wish amongst many older people to continue working beyond retirement for financial and other reasons.
Dr Flynn’s research appears in the journal Ageing & Society, and suggests that the ‘light touch’ approach by UK Government towards regulating employment after 65 has not worked.
UK managers are generally supportive of people who want to work past the retirement age of 65. However, HR departments are lagging behind with policies which would support this trend. In fact, Dr Flynn suggests that the recent change in regulations, where employers have a ‘duty to consider’ requests from employees who want to work beyond the age of 65, has consolidated rather than eradicated an entrenched ‘culture of retirement’.
The ‘duty to consider’ approach is unique to the UK. It was introduced in 2006, in legislation which set a ‘default retirement age’ of 65, but also imposed on employers a ‘duty to consider’ requests from employees wanting to work beyond 65. In practice it has led to only a slight growth in the numbers of people working beyond 65. In 2003 17% of men aged 65-69 were in work; by 2009 this had risen by just 5% to 21%. A similarly small rise was experienced for women over the same timescale.
Researchers interviewed 70 managers across 9 sectors of business and industry and based in workplaces large (over 200) and small (under 50). The study was part of a research project commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
Success in negotiating to remain at work came down to whether or not the post-65-year-old had a supportive line manager and rarely to official policies put in place by the organisation they worked for.
The research revealed that where an employee reaching retirement age has a sympathetic line manager, their chances of staying on in their job are much higher. This means that opportunities to stay at work are more the result of individual arrangements and do not represent wholesale change in the policies and practices of UK organisations.
Dr Flynn noted: “Managers see retaining their older workers as a way to conserve skills and knowledge during economically uncertain times. Managers’ attitudes aren’t holding them back. The problem lies in company policies.”
Assistance from HR departments was unusual and, where it occurred, not generally considered positive, Dr Flynn continued. Human resource specialists have been slow in providing line managers with guidance and many managers remain unaware that they can offer workers part-time roles or a change in job responsibilities as an alternative to retirement.
Previous research quoted in the article also suggests that work status at retirement age plays a role in whether or not an employee is successful in staying in the workforce past 65, with lower-paid workers the most vulnerable.
Lower-paid workers were found to be more vulnerable than professionals and entrepreneurs, as many had been made redundant late in life. Dr Flynn said: “The conclusion can be drawn that post-65 workers in low-skilled jobs would benefit most from the job security that would follow from abolishing mandatory retirement.”
Dr Flynn quotes one commentator as describing compulsory retirement as the leading form of age discrimination and the driving force behind ageism in modern society. In the UK, Ireland, Denmark and France an employee can still be dismissed solely on the basis of age.
Other countries have relaxed their laws with Sweden and Norway putting in place a retirement age of 67 and the USA and most of Canada abolishing compulsory retirement altogether.
The UK government will be reviewing the default retirement age in 2010 with a view towards abolishing mandatory retirement altogether.
Dr. Flynn commented: “Abolishing mandatory retirement age could result in the cultural change in managing older workers which the UK government wanted when it implemented the age discrimination regulations”.
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