The proportion of the workforce aged 55 and over grew from 10 per cent in 1998 to almost 20 per cent in 2018. This is forecast to rise further.
The recently published ESRI report The Ageing Workforce in Ireland , provides us with a very useful benchmark against which we can plan the shape of the workplace in Ireland over the next several decades.
My own interest and that of The Grey Matters Network is how to best position the older and mature person in the evolving workforce. We have always promoted the value of experience and in particular the inherent value that exists in the diversity of intergenerational teams.
Many of the conversations that have taken place to date tend to focus on “Ageism” and ‘How to Manage Millennials’ and the conflicting perspectives of one generation versus another.
Our focus is on the value of age diversity in any team and how that value can be derived.
The ESRI report explores and addresses many misconceptions to do with age and its impact. As a baseline we know that the population is ageing and so too is the workforce. The CSO predicts that Ireland’s older population (those aged over 65) will increase from 629,000 in 2016 to between 1.5 and 1.6 million in 2051. By 2031, it is forecast that at least 32 per cent of the labour force in Ireland will be aged over 50 years, up from 26 per cent in 2016.
Years of age are represented as numbers, what I found useful in the ESRI report is that it addressed this concept of ageing across three conceptualisations, that challenges the narrow view of age as soley a number.
The first of these age concepts just counts the years since you were born. It is widely agreed that chronological age is associated with measures of health but is not the most important determinant of health; “nor is it a determinant of performance or ability according to the research quoted from Börsch-Supan, 2013”
Then we have biological ageing, the process of gradual change in functional characteristics or biomarkers. Biological age focuses on measurable signs of ageing, rather than a person’s chronological age. In the case of older workers, relevant measures of biological ageing include dexterity, mobility, cognitive function and other health-related measures. It varies considerably across individuals.
The third and potentially most interesting in this context is social ageing. This is where we see AGESIM, The report explains that “This refers to the social meaning of age and the expectations that society, including managers, co-workers and family attach to individuals based on chronological age. These are often shaped by perceptions and stereotypes of efficiency and ability tied to older and younger workers (Börsch Supan, 2013).
Social policies and institutions also shape these perceptions. Social ageing can lead to norms and expectations around retirement, forms of age-based discrimination, and exclusion. Despite older workers routinely displaying the same work capacity as younger workers, employers and managers often see them as less efficient and costlier (Karpinska et al., 2013; Börsch-Supan, 2013), most of these perceptions stem from social ageing biases”.
There is, of course, the impact that the type of work can have on the individual’s ability to remain in the workforce. People in professional/manager roles are less likely to exit the workforce as early as those in physically demanding roles.
Another interesting finding which is consistent with our own research across our 400-person Associate Network is that there is a link between low autonomy jobs and early exit; implying that workers in flexible jobs are more likely to be able to continue working. We note from our own research that outcomes-based assignments allowing for a flexible working arrangement are attractive to 87% of our cohort.
Fact or Myth?
Research from Börsch-Supan (2013) also finds no objective evidence that older workers are less productive and suggest that this perception is a myth.
It quotes a study carried out by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA, 2016a. It found that several key physiological functions deteriorate with age. These include measures of strength, dexterity and mobility.
However, it determined that aspects of cognitive ability such as control and use of language and ability to reason can increase with age. In addition, depression and anxiety are less common among older workers. These findings challenge the idea that chronological ageing is inevitably associated with the deterioration of health and functioning.
A key conclusion of the report is that there is little evidence that changes in cognitive function affect work performance since older workers ‘compensate with an increase in knowledge, experience and judgement’ (ibid., p. 26).
- Skill and experience can also compensate for losses in physical function (ibid., p. 25 citing Harris and Higgins, 2006).
- Yeomans (2011) suggests that older workers may work more efficiently due to experience, avoiding the need for working ‘harder’.
The ESRI study comes as the European Union’s 2020 strategy looks to encourage active ageing, including increased work participation, both for productivity but also for personal wellbeing and “intergenerational solidarity”.
For me, this report fully endorses the value inherent in a workforce consisting of all generations and therefore all perspectives.
Tony Devine, Managing Partner, The Grey Matters Network
National Intergenerational Workplace Day will take place on November 20th 2019.
Visit www.intergenworkplace.ie for more information