An ageing workforce and small business.

Friday August 25, 2017

Well, it's official: 67 is the new 65 and working well into old age is the new retirement. The state pension age is going up and, at least according to the government, it's our own damn fault for living too long. It's no big secret that, on average, we're reaching our golden years more reliably and in a better state of repair. If you think that sounds like good news – well it is, mostly. On the other hand, it's threatening to put a strain on public finances. To make a long story short, the government's nervous that people will be getting too good a deal out of their state pensions. To the point, in fact, that people might start collecting on them for longer than they paid into the system. The solution: from November 2018, women will only be able to claim their pensions from the age of 65, just like men. Over the following 2 years, the age for everyone will rise to 67, with further increases planned down the line.

For businesses, we're going to see a few knock-on effects from this. Firstly, the average age of the UK's workforce is going to keep sliding upward. Right now, about 27% of working people are over 50. By 2020, that's probably going to top 33%. For industries that involve a lot of heavy physical work, there might be some tricky decisions to make. That said, sectors like construction are already seeing some amazing work being done on the R&D front to address this. Everything from 3D-printed buildings and bricklaying robots right the way up to mechanised sci-fi exoskeletons are on the way – so it's possible that age won't always be the barrier we consider it today. There are some questions to answer about the kind of benefit provisions employers are offering, though. Health benefits, for instance, might get more expensive with an ageing workforce. Also, any insurance premiums that are based on average employee age are going to rise, making it more expensive to put people to work in the first place.

Where there's a swing, though, you'll probably find a roundabout. Older workers tend to be more experienced, and actually take fewer sick days on average. That last point in particular is worth chewing over for a moment. People are living healthier lives into old age now than ever before. The fact that they're still working deep into their 60s actually means they're probably in pretty good shape – which might help explain why they need less time off.

The main thing to realise is that an older workforce doesn't necessarily mean a less productive one. It's a cliché, but it became one for a reason: age brings experience. Older people might take a little longer than the young to recover from a work injury, but their years on the job could go a long way to making those injuries rarer in the first place. Swings and roundabouts again. For industries where the physical demands of the job do prove overwhelming, technology has its part to play. As much as anything, though, it's about considering the way your business deals with the issue of age in general. Is it worth offering fewer hours, or working from home as options for older employees, for instance? Is there a way you could be using their expertise more effectively, such as training or mentoring younger workers? At the end of the day, your answers to questions like these will depend on the kind of business you're in. The key thing to keep in mind is that a rising retirement age is something we're all going to have to get used to, but it brings as many opportunities as complications.

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