This International Day of Older Persons (1 October), businesses and organisations should seize the opportunity to support people who want to extend their working lives.

As the UN says, empowering older people, including “promoting their active participation in economic life”, ensures inclusiveness and helps reduce inequalities.

We know that our ageing population is increasing pressure on governments who have to balance spending and taxation. However, our research shows that this demographic change can offer a range of opportunities of benefit to society and the economy. We can do so much more to support longer and more fulfilling working lives for those older people who want or need to continue to work past retirement age.

A study we conducted for the Scottish Government into the attitudes of people aged 50+ showed that people understood the health benefits of not being forced to retire, as well as the benefits to employers by retaining skilled and experienced staff. However, it was clear that choices over later working life were highly constrained for those on lower incomes, those in low-skilled jobs and those with significant caring responsibilities. There was also a mismatch between the attitudes and expectations of older people and those of employers.

Actions that could be taken to address these issues include:

  • Providing better pension-related information to staff to aid their planning, well before they reach retirement age.
  • Making people more aware of flexible working opportunities and the right to request flexible working.
  • More support for those returning to the labour market after taking time out to care for dependents.
  • Better job-seeking support for unemployed older people, so their skills and experience are matched with appropriate employment opportunities.

Moreover, it’s not all about paid work; our research also illustrates the range of ways ‘older workers’ also participate through unpaid and voluntary work.

In particular we have focused on the ways in which the provision of grandparent care offers a huge sense of fulfilment and purpose, as well as ensuring current generations of parents, especially mothers, are able to participate more fully in the labour market.

Our study of 73 grandparents in Scotland and England showed that many had significantly altered their hours of work or had even given up work altogether in order to provide care for their grandchildren. We maintain this unpaid work makes a significant contribution to economic life and should not be overlooked in the debates around the challenges and opportunities offered by increased longevity and demographic ageing.

Of course, for some people, continuing to work—in any capacity—beyond 65 is unrealistic. State support is required if we want people to have genuine control over the timing of the end of their working lives. Nevertheless, encouraging policy-makers to value participation via paid and unpaid work is essential to ensuring a more inclusive, equal society that appreciates, rather than fears, age.

Wendy Loretto

Wendy Loretto is Dean of the Business School and Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Laura Airey

Laura Airey is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow