Newcastle University professor encourages businesses to make most of over-50s

Newcastle University Professor Tom Kirkwood, an expert on ageing, was responding to survey findings suggesting that few employers were bothering to maintain an older workforce

Newcastle University Professor Tom Kirkwood
Newcastle University Professor Tom Kirkwood

Essential skills will be lost unless employers do more to value their older workers, a leading Government adviser from the North East has warned.

Newcastle University Professor Tom Kirkwood, an expert on ageing, was responding to survey findings suggesting that few employers were bothering to maintain an older workforce.

This was despite two-thirds of employers questioned claiming that staff over 50 were important to their businesses.

A total of 500 UK business leaders were questioned for the YouGov poll, conducted as part of an experts’ meeting on ageing at London’s Royal Institution.

A large proportion, 40%, said people aged over 50 accounted for a quarter of their workforce. Two-thirds maintained that over-50s made an important contribution to their business, and up to 81% were concerned that skills would be lost when older workers retire.

Yet just 19% of employers saw maintaining an older workforce as a business priority. A mere 12% invested in any sort of targeted training for older staff, and only 4% had designed workplaces to make them more suitable for older workers.

Half the employers said they often received job applications from over-50s, but just a third actively recruited older workers. Six out of 10 admitted they had no strategies in place to encourage the employment of people over 50.

Prof Kirkwood, director of the Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age (Nica), who advises the Government on ageing issues, said: “There is real value in retaining the rich skills and experience of older workers but few businesses have yet caught on to the real potential of this population.

“Creating jobs for young people is of course also essential but the reality is that we face a stark skills gap, as the baby boomers approach retirement at a rate faster than they can be replaced. Older workers have huge mental capital which all too often gets wasted. Those businesses that get this right will be the ones most likely to create the growth that will benefit everyone, whether old already or just seeking to enter the workforce.”

He added: “I am issuing a wake-up call to government and society as a whole to start taking this problem seriously.

“Employers need to start realising that by embracing the mental capital of the ageing workforce, businesses can grow and even flourish which in turn will strengthen our economy and continue to ensure the social care needs of our greying futures are met adequately.”

The professor was speaking at the Astellas Innovation Debate, chaired by leading fertility scientist Lord Robert Winston, which brought together a panel of top experts to discuss the challenges presented by an ageing population. The event was organised by Astellas Pharma Europe Ltd.

Prof Kirkwood was backed by fellow panellist Baroness Sally Greengross, an independent member of the House of Lords and chief executive of the UK International Longevity Centre. She said: “If we don’t change our employment practice, industry will face a skills gap: this is inevitable. There is also significant denial around the implications and consequences of our rapidly ageing population in businesses and within our society as a whole.

“Most industry leaders clearly recognise most people over 60 - and even 65 - are fit enough to be active members of society, whether that’s as paid workers, volunteers, or carers. We need to change our attitudes and to stop defining age by the number of birthday candles we have on a cake.” Another survey carried out for the event found that for a third of people cancer was still the most feared disease of old age, more frightening than Alzheimer’s, dementia and heart disease.

In addition, just under half of those questioned thought the Government should allow younger people to be screened for the diseases that afflict the old, to improve prevention.

Despite the fact that people are living longer, a third of respondents said they would like to retire at 60.

This was despite the fact that 45% did not believe they had made adequate pension provisions.


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