Helping older workers thrive in the digital age

Jenny Lincoln, Age Research and Policy Manager, Business in the Community, on the automation and the importance of (older) human workers

The UK’s economy is digitising and its population is ageing, both impacting the labour market and the nature of work. These trends are interconnected, and for employers to adapt to both effectively, their strategies must be interconnected too.

Both the ageing population and digitisation affect the economy. The demographic shift is seeing a higher number of older people leaving the labour market than young people entering it. Providing for the growing retired population will become increasingly difficult; a rising state pension age and tax revenue alone will not suffice. Enabling longer and fuller working lives is an obvious solution, and employers have a huge role to play. 

Despite the economic imperative to enable longer working lives, many employers are replacing their employees with automation technologies. Some argue that automation can increase productivity and offset the impact of an ageing population. However, maintaining a high employment rate is still vital for the economy. The Global McKinsey Institute’s research found that economic growth goals will only be met if employers adopt automation and maintain the employment rate. Therefore, redeploying and reskilling workers is crucial. And as those workers age, employers must be able to adapt to the needs of an older workforce. 

As it stands, ‘work’ is not working for many people aged over 50. Our research shows a Missing Million people over 50 who are out of work, but want to work. Too many are pushed and kept out of the workforce through dismissals, redundancies, ageism and discrimination. A lack of flexible working opportunities prevents many older people from working, as they are unable to combine work with caring responsibilities or health issues.

Supporting longer working lives requires employers to transform the workplace and redesign ‘work’, so that the older workforce can thrive. Focusing on the 3 R’s is key to a successful transformation:

  1. Retain older workers and their skills in the workplace, through opportunities for flexible working, job sharing, internal career changes, and midlife career reviews.

  2. Retrain older workers, offering the same opportunities to develop skills – particularly those required in the new world of work - irrespective of age.

  3. Recruit older workers, by removing age discrimination, bias and stereotypes from the recruitment processes, and using age-inclusive language and images.

As the Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, we have set a target for one million more older people in work by 2022. This equates to a 12% increase in the number of older workers (50-69 years) currently in work – a target that all employers can work towards. The Age at Work campaign is committed to supporting and guiding employers to achieve this target. It is ambitious, but necessary. The nature of work itself is already changing as we shift to the digital economy. Employers must simply consider the needs of the older workforce.