Longer working lives are a pipe dream if we keep making older employees unhappy

Intense, precarious work pushes many people into retirement, or leaves them disengaged. But there is a better way, says Dr Chris Ball.

Throughout my childhood, a BBC variety show, Workers’ Playtime, was broadcast from work canteens to boost morale and support national productivity. It began as an attempt to support the war effort – and worked rather well. ‘A happy worker is a better worker’ was the theory.

Happiness and job satisfaction are important elements in employee engagement. Many studies have shown that older workers are generally more engaged, more committed to their organisations than younger workers and experience higher job satisfaction.

Like all generalisations, it is full of danger, but in some respects this is valid. One reason is that unhappy older workers will probably take the first opportunity to retire, leaving more engaged colleagues to soldier on: ‘the survival of the happiest’ you could call it.

The ground has been shifting over the past 20 years, however. In the 1980s, factory closures and early pensions provided people with incentives to retire early. Now a mix of financial penalties and incentives supports a government drive to extend working lives – and it is not so easy to get out of an unhappy job with a nice early retirement cushion to flop down on.

Society is ageing and the government wants people to work longer. Moreover, employers can no longer oblige employees to retire at a given age. Many are working longer because they have to – Britain’s state pension system, the worst in the Western world, sees to that.

With Brexit, older workers will be needed as migrants no longer fill the skills gaps. But some employers worry that older employees will coast downhill to retirement, lacking both job engagement and the motivation to quit. If true, productivity will suffer.

Researchers from the University of Westminster and Policy Studies Institute believe the ‘older worker premium’, in positive attitudes and job satisfaction, has indeed been slipping. Analysis of attitude studies stretching back to 1992 shows that their advantages in organisational commitment and job satisfaction have partially eroded compared with younger employees.

Reasons for this include a deterioration in the quality of working life, so that the jobs they once enjoyed are no longer the same. As one 61-year-old man put it: “I used to love my job, but it’s changed now. They have moved the goalposts and are making it harder and harder.”

Numerous factors emerge to explain the growing discontent of older employees. First, work has become more intensified. The use of information technology to control, monitor and change the ways we work is one factor. Many organisations are in a permanent state of flux. Continuous changes impose new stresses on those responsible for implementing them and create fundamentally different working conditions. Older workers are particularly feeling these changes – for example, with the introduction of performance related pay.

Second, work has become more precarious. Older staff are affected by an increased probability of unemployment or diminished jobs as they approach retirement, including through employers’ use of redundancy to achieve organisational change. With the increase in state pension ages, older workers are competing in a growing sector of part-time, temporary and casual jobs.

Third, there has been a gradual process of reducing the autonomy offered to employees in the way they do their jobs. This has had wide repercussions and is particularly hard on older, longer-serving employees who would normally expect to draw on their experience and skills where they are experts in highly specific work fields.

So jobs and workplaces feel different to those that older workers entered years ago. Once-loved jobs have sometimes become a nightmare.

Clearly, if the government’s ambition to add a million more older workers to the labour force is to be met, something will be needed to make work less stressful – and, dare we say, fun? Bringing back Workers’ Playtime may not be the answer. But who knows? It could help…

First published at People Management, 23 January 2018.

Older employees not keeping up with the young Joneses

The media keep telling us that older retired people are better off than the younger generation. While they may have toiled for years to pay off their mortgages, they did have the good fortune to get into the housing market before it went mad and bad. Today’s pensioner households are also enjoying higher incomes than working households for the first time.

But as we note in a new paper just published by the online version of the journal Work, Employment and Society, this may be a story of bygone days. Older employees who are now heading into the pre-retirement zone have a different story to tell. Over a 15-year period younger employees (under-45s) consistently forged ahead in their wages and earnings compared with the over-45s. At the end of the period, the older group’s earnings had slipped back by 21 per cent compared with their younger counterparts, and for older male employees the comparative decline was larger still, at 32 per cent. A process of greater inter-generational equality, at least in terms of earnings, would appear to be underway.

So the good times will not be quite so good for the next generation of retired people.

There is also a message or two in this for younger workers. Service increments and promotion grades are being cut, not to mention company pensions. Pay is increasingly based on performance. The advice might be to push for as much as you can get while you are in your prime, and save all you can, because nobody will be making it up for you later.

Read the paper

Britain’s older employees in decline, 1990–2006: a panel analysis of payWork, Employment and Society, 20 March 2017

Is retirement a ‘window of opportunity’ for lifestyle change?

Over the past two decades, retirement has increasingly come to be presented as a ‘risk’ for individuals, whether in relation to income or due to the potentially negative impact on wellbeing, physical, and mental health. In light of warnings that retirement is a health risk, a new qualitative research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council, has explored whether English workers plan significant change to their health-related behaviours as they make the transition from employment to retirement.

The study found that many respondents saw retirement as representing an opportunity for positive health change and the introduction of healthy lifestyles, or as a beneficial side effect of retiring from challenging work circumstances. A smaller group felt retirement carried inherent health risks – for example, drinking alcohol more frequently, over-eating due to boredom, and slowing down or ‘vegetating’ – and saw a need to guard against these.

Although the structure and routines provided by paid employment are a resource for well-being (providing social contact, income, activity, and ‘meaning’), they are also a constraint, which limits the available time and emotional and physical energy to address other lifestyle areas such as exercise and healthy eating. The health implications of retirement are therefore complex and context-dependent.

Policies and interventions targeting the health related practices of people on the cusp of retirement may well be effective because this ‘moment of change’ temporarily disrupts patterns of behaviour in everyday life and opens the possibility of modifying habits before new routines become established.

The findings are published in full in the Journal of Aging and Health. Access the article here.

Motivation on the slide for older managers and professional employees

For most organisations, experienced older managers are one of their most valuable assets, as are older professional employees – engineers, accountants, medics, economists, IT experts and others. Not surprisingly, these occupations have been and continue to be highly rewarded, relative to other kinds of employee.

But now, research from PSI shows that the motivation of these groups, once they reach late career, has been on a downward slide since the early 1990s. Indeed, they are the only group whose job satisfaction and organisational commitment have been falling over the entire 20-year period.

The research is bad news for government and for employers. Keeping these employees in the workforce will be difficult, re-motivating them harder still. PSI researchers Deborah Smeaton and Michael White, who carried out the research, blame widespread regimes of cost reduction and continuous organisational change as the source of growing pressures and uncertainties for executives.

The findings are published in full in the journal Human Relations – access the article here.

Related article

Older Workers: kept in but not kept happy, by Deborah Smeaton and Michael White

Update: 24 August 2016

You can read a recently posted summary and discussion of the article by the authors, on the ‘Work in Progress’ website of the American Sociological Association.

Older employees: kept in but not kept happy

Unless older people stay employed and paying taxes for more years, the welfare state will crumble under the pension burden. So government policy since the 1990s has been designed to keep older employees working for longer.

But new research findings show that older employees became steadily more unhappy about their jobs from the early Nineties through to 2012. Their overall job satisfaction and organisational commitment fell over this period, relative to younger employees, and older employees became particularly unhappy about increased work pressures. Over the recession period, older employees also became dissatisfied with job insecurity and declining company pensions.

These findings come as a blow to both government and employers. Unhappy employees are likely to seek escape, damaging the prospects for the ‘keep workers in’ policy. Unhappiness at work also means lower performance in the job and a waning of the ‘loyalty’ that employers value.

To extend working life (EWL), government and employers will therefore have to think more about quality of working life (QWL).

Our findings are published in the journal Social Policy and Society. Read the full paper here.