Employers responsible for preparing staff for later life

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Employees now need to reskill faster and more times in their lives, while working in long-term care will be well suited to older staff

It is employers’ responsibility to prepare their staff for later life, according to House of Lords peer and CEO of the International Longevity Centre UK Sally Greengross.

Speaking at The Economists’ Ageing Societies conference, Greengross said that a key initiative employers should commit to, perhaps as part of wider CSR activities, is encouraging regular volunteering in employees’ local communities.

“Employers should set aside even just half a day a week or month for staff to be in their communities,” she said. “That means when they eventually stop work they know where to go, they’re involved, they already are in the local community."

“We need a mentality that means right from when you’re young, you’re part of your local community, because it’s there as you get older you’re going to need a knowledge to function positively,” she added, describing the importance of keeping people active and connected into older age. “It’s very important because in the Northern hemisphere we have a great problem, which is isolation and loneliness and declining contact and activity. That’s a disaster and it’s quite unnecessary."

Greengross added however that volunteering should by no means be seen as the only option for staying connected into later life. “Work can be paid work… it can be a whole range of things, but it’s very important,” she said, adding the business benefits of employing older workers. “If I want to know what screwdriver I need, I’m going to go to someone who’s used a lot of screwdrivers,” she pointed out.

Greengross called for “the snobbery” that surrounds certain kinds of work to be challenged, so that older workers don’t feel embarrassed to take less ‘prestigious’ but nonetheless rewarding jobs. “People say ‘I’ll end up on the till on Tesco,’ but that’s a great job for many older people – you’ve got friends and mates and you can work flexibly with shift work,” she said. “We have to get rid of the idea of what is 'good' work and what isn’t."

“We can all expect to change the way we work in our lives several times; it’s the responsibility of employers to make sure as we go through our lives and change, we look again at what we want to do,” Greengross added. “Employers must make sure they are looking across the life of their employees. The other thing that’s their responsibility in any sector is to look at lifelong learning.”

Also speaking at the event, deputy editor at The Economist Tom Standage agreed on the need to help employees reskill continually throughout their lives. He asserted that the challenge automation presents is the same as that faced repeatedly over the last several centuries, citing the example of ATMs, which actually created more not less jobs as banks could be opened more cheaply, and the death of typesetting, where new technology nonetheless created more graphic design jobs.

The only difference now, said Standage, is that people will need to reskill faster and more times. “This transformation is happening much more quickly so we need to be able to move people to a new version of their job more quickly than before,” he said.

He added that the proliferation of care jobs, created as the UK population ages, represents an opportunity for older workers. “Looking after other humans, machines are pretty dire at; automation places the emphasis on the value of soft skills and those are skills older people are more likely to have,” he said.

John Beard, director of the World Health Organisation’s Ageing and Life Course, agreed the expansion of the care economy should be seen as an economic and employment opportunity. “Long term care is a classic where we think it’s just a drain,” he said. “But what people are beginning to realise is there’s a whole care economy. And creating a care economy is not just economically sensible, but creates meaningful jobs for people too.”

Also speaking at the event was George Leeson, co-director of The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He pointed out the opportunity that immigration represents in filling the ageing population skills gap. “There’s not just one answer to our ageing population, but immigration could be one of them,” he said, adding: “We need this additional workforce”.

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