Getting better with age? The experiences of older workers

More and more older individuals are working. It’s good news that more people are working longer, with potential benefits for both individuals and the economy. But employment rates still drop notably when people reach their 50s and 60s.  The reasons why individuals leave or remain in employment are varied - some stay in work out of financial necessity, while others choose to do so because they enjoy their work. Others may find themselves leaving work as a result of poor health or caring responsibilities. But if older individuals are to be encouraged to remain in work for longer, improving their experiences of employment is likely to be an important factor.

In new research published today by the Department for Work and Pensions, undertaken by NIESR and UCL, we explore the experiences of older workers in the workplace. We do so using nationally representative data on British workplaces and their employees from the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS).

Employers are of course required by law to treat all employees equally regardless of age, but some go beyond the measures prescribed by legislation. Equal opportunities policies explicitly mentioning age are now fairly widespread, but formal equal opportunities practices relating to age are typically less common.

In some respects, at least at first sight, older workers appear to fare relatively well – for example, in common with existing studies, we find that older employees report higher job satisfaction and job-related wellbeing than employees aged 22-49. Perceptions of fair treatment were also higher among employees aged 65 or over. However, these apparent better outcomes may at least in part reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have already left employment. And while older workers report higher job satisfaction and perceptions of fair treatment on average, there is considerable variation.

We might expect that older workers fare better in those workplaces which have formal equal opportunities policies and practices relating to age. Indeed, in terms of pay, we do find that older workers are paid more in workplaces where formal age-related practices are in place (although we cannot claim this is causal). But we find no association between the presence of these practices and outcomes for older workers in terms of job satisfaction and wellbeing, and perceptions of fair treatment. Instead, other features of the job and workplace are important; with for example, higher job satisfaction among older workers where they have greater autonomy over their work and where they consider management to be supportive. Existing research has shown that these relationships between job quality and job satisfaction are evident for employees of all ages, and are not just important for older workers.

One area in which older employees appear to fare less well than their younger counterparts is when it comes to receiving training. While 73 per cent of employees aged between 22 and 39 had received at least one day of training in the year prior to the survey, this applied for 62 per cent of employees aged 50 and over. This is consistent with a reduction in incentives for employers to invest in training as employees age, as they perceive there will be fewer years in which to reap the benefits. It has also been suggested that older employees can be less motivated to participate in training, so both employer and employee factors may be at play (indeed, older employees did not report being less satisfied with opportunities to develop their skills in their job). But in an era of fast-moving technological change and growing recognition of the importance of lifelong learning, it may be that this is an area where both employer and employee attitudes will need to change.

This post has focused on the experiences of employees, but what about employers? In our next blogpost we’ll explore the evidence on whether the changing age composition of workplaces affects workplace performance. Watch this space.

This blog post  is based on research undertaken for the Department for Work and Pensions by Lucy Stokes, Alex Bryson, Helen Bewley and John Forth. The full research report is available here

 

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