What's age got to do with it?

Elaine Ballard (Chief Executive, Taff Housing Association) considers the impact demographic changes will have on the housing sector in Wales and the benefits of a age-diverse workforce.

It’s estimated that by mid-2030s people aged 50 and over will comprise more than half of the UK adult population. Today, people are living longer and maintaining good health beyond pension age and according to the Welsh Government, more than half of workers currently aged over 55 plan to work beyond their 65th birthday.

My first job in social housing was helping people transfer to more suitable homes from their existing Council house. Over 50s were considered for sheltered housing, which in those days meant downsizing to a bedsit or 1 bed flat, with a resident warden. We thought nothing of considering over 50’s as old, and it was rare that anyone still worked in most of the sheltered schemes.

All change

How times have changed! 50 is definitely the new 30 as far as most of my friends and colleagues are concerned and retirement is now something that happens when we feel ready, not when we get what is generally referred to as our old age pension. This is liberating for many, but it can also be a worry for others, particularly those who have been manual workers all their lives.

The challenge for employers is about how to create real choice for older workers. Some will be able to carry on into their 70s – my Mum was a pharmacist and was still doing a couple of days per week well past 70. My Dad, a blast furnace worker, could not possibly have been climbing cooling towers at that age, and retired in his 50s. He then re-trained to be a teacher – achieving a lifelong ambition.

What responsible employers need to do is offer flexibility. Part time working, re-training and adjustments to the work environment are some of the approaches which can be helpful.

It is important for companies to highlight that they are open to recruiting and retaining older workers (and to do so publicly), as staff of all ages bring strengths to any business.

At Taff, we were early adopters of proposals to end age discrimination, by removing a statutory retirement age. Several long term staff members chose to stay on after their ‘normal’ retirement age, as they really enjoyed their work. A housekeeper at our hostel for young mothers was keen to stay on and we were delighted to have her! She knew the project inside out and was always on hand to give good advice to residents – and staff!

Experience is a very valuable commodity in social housing (as it is in many sectors of the economy), as is the ability to deal with challenging and sometimes stressful situations. Experience helps develop resilience and a calming influence when the warning signs of difficult situations start to appear. Having someone around to mentor newer recruits in customer facing roles has been essential to our business. During the early weeks in a new post, staff carry out shared visits to customers. The mentor is able to talk through policies and procedures in advance, then the staff member can observe them in practice. This builds confidence ready for when the new starter ‘goes solo’. Staff are encouraged to accompany employees from other teams, helping to improve their understanding of the other aspects of the organisation.

Corporate memory

Corporate memory is another valuable resource for employers of any size. Records and documents only ever tell part of the story and someone who knows the nuances and history can help deliver a different perspective. John (now retired) not only remembered nearly all the repairs a particularly property has had, but he could tell you children’s and even pets’ names before knocking on the door! Knowing, for example, that Mrs B is going to panic if the cat escapes, was a useful way of establishing trust and rapport with clients; something that is incredibly valuable in the housing sector.

One of the principles here at Taff Housing Association is about seeing every person as an individual – whether an employee or a customer. We always look for the strengths a person brings, and at ways we can support them where they need a bit of help. This attitude has proved beneficial in keeping some of our older staff in the company, as we grow together with them, and adjust working practices.

With the right mindset, the challenges are easily overcome, so that companies can reap the rewards of employing older staff.

Our oldest retiree was 71, and many more have worked well into their 60s. Twelve of our current workforce are 60+, and 38 are between 50-59; so we are actively encouraging people to think beyond the traditional retirement age. 

Why wouldn’t an employer want to access a lifetime’s experience, wisdom and advice? Retirement is a great choice, but only if it’s the right time for the individual.

For more information about the work that BITC carries out in this area, please visit our website https://age.bitc.org.uk/