Age management: a preventive approach to conserve the workability and employability of older people

Age management: a preventive approach to conserve the workability and employability of older people

Chris Ball, from the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, gives us some food for thought around what ‘active ageing’ could concretely mean if we were really developing ‘age management’ policies for older persons to remain longer at work – another piece supporting the argument that older workers’ training will be a key investment for society to benefit from older adults’ talents!

“Active ageing,” and “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” are all fairly widely understood terms; but what is “age management”? At its most basic, it is about prevention of unnecessary forced exits of people from work before they have fulfilled their potential. So often, it seems, people working for an employer for twenty, thirty or forty years, end up out of work, redundant and unemployable. Many people quit early for health reasons, or because they have to care for someone. These and other common reasons are not incapable of being mitigated however. Age management interventions can be introduced to prevent people being spat out as the waste products of the system, unemployable and unusable.

If work could be arranged so that the workability and employability of workers is conserved as treasured talents, working longer or starting a new career in later life, would be far less problematic. Most of us like the idea of “active ageing,” but such an ideal is hard to imagine without addressing age management. So what is age management? What does it mean and who has to do it? The concept emerged out of European policy research over the past twenty years, initially pioneered by researchers in the 1990s and early 2000s. Walker and Taylor collected and codified a huge range of practical interventions which human resources (HR) and operational managers had introduced in companies across Europe. In this way, good age management practices were identified in a multitude of companies. Many had been introduced by innovations at company level and owed much to common sense problem fixing. Others, like the Finnish “Workability” model, had more academic and policy driven research origins.

Some policies offered incentives (such as pension enhancements) to delay retirement. Others looked searchingly at working conditions, to see if it would be possible to prevent the causes of early retirement by easing the burden on workers labouring in arduous or unpleasant conditions. Examples can be seen in efforts to improve work design or the introduction of more flexible working hours to accommodate the needs of working carers. Leading edge companies like Vattenfall in Sweden, adopted policies aimed at promoting health and “workability.” Facing an increase in average ages of their workforce, Vattenfall set out to retain their seniors, first by increasing the company pension age to 65 and secondly by reducing the workloads of older workers, encouraging them to prolong their careers by telling them they were needed and devising a scheme to allow reduced working hours with little loss of pay and zero loss of pension rights. Leadership training and approaches to exchange knowledge across the generations went hand in hand with improved working environments, encouragement of healthy living and a number of other initiatives.

Hence, best practices in age management, came to be understood as strategically led, holistic interventions addressing the operational and people needs of organisations. Governments, informed by EU declarations and campaigning initiatives, absorbed the message that employment practices by individual companies had to change. Practices which incentivised early retirement, had to end. Various campaigns were embarked upon, to inform and influence employers in the direction of age friendly human resources strategies which prevented people retiring or becoming economically inactive well before state retirement ages. Retirement ages have changed in all countries and are still in a continuing transition phase.

States have played an important role in promoting age positive policies but not all of them have been particularly successful. Clearly, investing in training and retraining has helped the Nordic countries to achieve the highest retirement ages. Access to training to support entry into new occupations and second or third careers, can help people to remain employable much longer. Some countries, such as Germany have seen rapid changes by a combination of national policies around pensions and retirement and industry, company and state or Lander led policies falling into the age management description. BMW provides perhaps the best known example of employer based age management. (The company designed a new car assembly plant in consultation with a deliberately selected older workforce). But in truth there are hundreds of companies where policies have been informed by the reality of workforce ageing. “Demographically aware” policies have been adopted both at company level and more generally, through industry wide agreements. Social dialogue around ageing and working has become quite widespread.

Put simply, the goal of age management is prevention of lost human capital and opportunities when people end their working lives prematurely. With people living longer it seems inevitable that they will have to work longer.

Age management and policies to promote active ageing demand a collaborative approach – people can’t have age management done to them. This is why, social dialogue between employers and trade union representatives is an important element in the package. The ASPIRE project is looking at the good examples of social dialogue on active ageing, that might inspire and inform us going forward.


Chris Ball is a Researcher at Newcastle University and the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce. The above comments are part of a keynote intervention he gave at the European Transnational Thematic Network – Employment in Madrid on 8th October 2018. His organisation CROW – the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce – is currently engaged in a European Commission funded project, ASPIRE – Active Ageing through Social Partnership and Industrial Relations in Europe.

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