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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Senior citizens on the job
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Senior citizens on the job
RTD info 30
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  There is no denying the economic and demographic realities. 'Active ageing' is replacing early retirement as 'lifelong learning' becomes the motto for the future. By 2007, there will be more workers aged 55-64 than 15-24.
   
     
   

Last year, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), part of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), presented the results of its Futures project, an attempt to take stock of the likely scientific, technological, economic and social changes of the coming decades. Among other things, this wide-ranging prospective study looked at the likely impact of demographic change in Europe.

Apart from the social issues raised by an ageing population (see Living life to the end), the impact on the age structure of the working population will be of crucial significance. In 2010, the 50-64 age group will make up almost 30% of working Europeans (an 18% increase compared to 1995), outnumbering the 15-29 age group.

Shock therapy

'This rapid ageing of the working population will be the first demographic shock and one which requires policy measures now,' stresses Géry Coomans in the report on the Futures project entitled Demographic and Social Trends. What is more, this problem is coming at a time of increasingly rapid scientific and technological progress.

The need for a radical rethinking of education and training systems and mechanisms with a view to what is known as Lifelong Learning is therefore becoming increasingly vital. James Gavigan, the coordinator of the Demographic and Social Trends Panel of the IPTS Futures project, is consequently calling for a 'shock therapy joining public and private efforts, to involve the middle- to upper-age cohorts in appropriate continuous learning up-skilling while there is still some time'.

Finland and Sweden

However, this plea for lifelong learning - one of the priorities highlighted by the Union's education and training policy - implies radical changes to the mindset which is blocking the labour market. 'There seems to be a general aversion to ageing workers,' believes Rita Asplund, a researcher at ETLA (the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy). 'The older you are, the less chance of being re-employed if you lose your job. And then if you are re-employed, it is usually in a job in a non-technology firm with much less job security. The employment is also commonly on a temporary basis, often with the help of public subsidies for the employer.'

ETLA and other research institutes are working on a multidisciplinary project (Towards a successful old age: from a full working career to an active retirement) as part of Finland's ambitious Research Programme on Ageing. This is an issue which seems to be of particular pertinence in a country which has opted firmly for new technologies (following the economic difficulties of the 1990s) and where the difference in the level of training between the over-45s and young people is particularly wide.

Its neighbour, Sweden, is an example of a country where population ageing, already more pronounced than in the other Member States, is accompanied by an employment rate among the 55-59 age group which is one and a half times the EU average.
Sweden 'is anomalous with regard to the age-dependence of the training-participation rate, with a relatively even spread over different age brackets, compared to a steady decline of participation rates with age for the EU as a whole,' notes James Gavigan. 'In fact, the highest job-related training participation rate (20%) in Sweden is for 40-49 year-olds, while over 59 year-olds at 10% is over five times the EU15 average.'

Overturning set ideas

Géry Cooman believes too many companies are stuck in the thinking of the age of Taylorism and the outmoded idea of a link between increasing age and shrinking productivity. This attitude is particularly evident when large companies restructure, systematically opting for early retirement for the over-50s, at huge expense. This expert cites the results of research concluding that older employees possess valuable experience and skills which must be passed on. 'In some cases, the wave of early retirements we have seen in recent years in Europe culminated a little later in those same over-50s being asked to return to work.'

Of course one can argue that older workers often have higher salaries. Maybe. But then again salaries are not determined by seniority alone, but also by experience. Alan Walker (see box entitled Good practices) also makes the point that a number of studies have found that 'older workers are no less efficient', have 'fewer accidents and remain committed to the company'. The conclusion is that 'their net average cost to the employer is comparable to that of younger staff'.

Finally, many companies believe that a broad range of ages, allowing for a balanced team structure, is a positive factor at the human level and in terms of efficiency.

Their heart in their work

This does not mean to say, however, that the older people are the more they put their heart into their work. 'Those who are close to retirement age see retirement as an inviolable social contract they have entered into with society,' points out Lena Sommestad (IFS, Stockholm), seeing this issue as a major obstacle to remaining in work. James Gavigan is more optimistic, believing that today's sudden end to work at a compulsory age is often, in fact, unwelcome for healthy 60-year-olds. He places his trust in the ability of the present generation of baby boomers(1) - who will soon form the 'cohort' of the 'elderly' and are therefore at the heart of what he calls a 'demographic time bomb' - to rewrite the rules as they go through life. 'With the need to find a new balance of social responsibility and cost-coverage this generation may in turn reinvent old age and retirement, building on ideas such as semi-retirement and work arrangements, in flexible formats which accommodate individual choice and preferences. Much innovation in public policy, business, civil society and people's mindsets is needed.'

(1) The baby boom refers to the major increase in the annual birth-rate following World War II, which lasted until the early 1960s.
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To find out more

James P. Gavigan, The Learning Imperative for Europe's Ageing Workforce, The IPTS Report n°38.

Géry Coomans, Demographic and Social Trends (Futures Report), Europe's Changing Demography Constraints and Bottlenecks , IPTS.

David Mercer, The Future of Education in Europe until 2010, IPTS
www.jrc.es/

 



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Good practices

The Uitzendbureau 55+ (NL) employment agency specialises in finding jobs for this age group. The German metallurgical company Keller GmbH has decided to build on the experience of its older skilled workers by introducing special courses to train them in the new industrial technologies. The financial company Fidisco (BE) has decided to reduce the working week for the over-60s by two hours with no loss of earnings. Ruoka-Saarioinen Oy (FI) has acquired new equipment and modified its facilities to cater for its senior citizens.

These are all examples of human resources management which takes full account of older workers. Alan Walker's guide gives a number of examples 'in the field', looks at the actions and good practices from the angle of the employers, unions and individuals, and identifies the principle ways of removing age barriers, including a non-discriminatory recruiting policy, training and promotion actions, opportunities for flexible working hours, taking into account ergonomic data and, of course, an enterprise culture adapted to this new reality.

Alan Walker, Managing ageing workers - Guide to good practices, published by the European Foundation for the improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1999.

 
     
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Life expectancy

In 1996, life expectancy in the most developed countries was 74 years for men and 82 years for women - with the Japanese and the French obtaining the highest scores. The figure shows a regular increase of 2.5 years every decade (three months a year).

Particularly good news is that people are not only living longer, but better, with a longer healthy life span. At the age of 80, life expectancy for women (ten years) is close to that of men (seven years) in the countries with the highest scores. One girl in two born today in an OECD country will live for a century. In France, the number of 100-year-olds is expected to increase by more than 3 000% by 2050.

 
     
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Good practices

Life expectancy

 

Senior citizens on the job

 


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