Challenges of an ageing population

A study by Estonia’s Centre of Applied Social Sciences looks at older people in the labour market and shows that overall awareness of the challenges society faces due to the ageing population is very low. Based on the results, researchers recommend improving measures designed to keep workers in the job market for longer. These include life-long learning initiatives, more flexible working conditions and preventative health care measures.

About the study

In December 2012, Estonia’s Centre of Applied Social Sciences (CASS) presented a study, The elderly in the Estonian labour market (in Estonian, 1.5KB PDF). Its aim was to gather labour market related information on people aged between 50 and 74. The study was designed to map their situation in the Estonian labour market. The study focused on the working conditions of older people and the health of the more elderly employees. It also looked at employers’ attitudes towards older workers and how their skills were perceived.


The study used mixed research methods and consisted of five parts:

  • desk research;
  • a survey of workers aged 50 to 74 through 1,001 face-to-face interviews;
  • a survey of employers through 201 telephone interviews;
  • the mapping of good practice through telephone interviews with 33 Estonian employers regarded as the most socially responsible, as assessed against the Corporate Social Responsibility index put together by Estonian business paper Äripäev and the Responsible Business Forum;
  • two focus groups with employer and employee representatives and labour market experts.

Problems facing older workers

Of the sample, 8% were unemployed. Of these, 51% were unemployed involuntarily, 24% had given up work due to health problems, and 12% due to other work-related problems.

Asked to identify the main factors that prevented them from working, the most frequent response was the lack of suitable work (31%), followed by personal reasons (17%), lack of transport (14%), and the lack of flexible work arrangements (12%).

The survey found that people in work seemed to be in comparatively good health. The proportion of those who said their health was ‘good’ was greater among the employed (70%) than among the unemployed (57%).

Around a third of those in work described their job as physically and mentally exhausting, and the same proportion said their working conditions were quite strict and inflexible.

Significantly, the results of the study showed that older people were less willing to discuss the possibility of changing their working conditions with their employer. Employers very rarely made proactive proposals to adjust employees’ working time (4%) or their place of work (8%).

The research showed that, when asked, 54% of employers said they had given older workers the chance to reduce their workload, 36% said they had adapted their work schedules, and 31% had made adjustments in the workplace. However, the study restricted to those employers considered most socially responsible showed that in practice there were only a small number of businesses which had introduced measures to prolong the employment of older workers.

Desk analysis also showed that collective agreements and employment contracts usually did not include any provisions that took age into account.

Obstacles to older people working

Outdated knowledge and skills, and resistance to change were considered the biggest obstacles for older people in the labour market by both employers and employees. While the general opinion was that older workers participated in training to the same extent as younger people, the study showed that participation rates in life-long learning among those aged 50–74 was lower than in younger age groups

Participation in training by age group (%)

Taught learning

Age groups






Participated in training courses at work





Participated in conference or seminar at work





Participated in courses related to outside interests





Source: Elderly in the Estonian labour market, 2012, based on Estonian Labour Force Survey data 2010.

What employers say

According to the study, 70% of employers said an employee’s age was not significant. Regarding unequal treatment and age discrimination, 6% of older people said they had experienced unequal treatment while 90% had not. Overall, there were only a few cases in Estonia where age discrimination was documented.

The study results revealed that despite the ageing population, 82% of employers had not assessed their company’s risks arising from the issue, and 77% of employers did not think that the proportion of older people would significantly increase over the next five years.


CASS recommended raising awareness of the issue of Estonia’s ageing population in society. It also called for wider use of flexible work forms in order to improve older workers’ employment. CASS also said the state should continue campaigning for the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, engage family physicians in the prevention of health risks and also suggested that fringe benefit tax on employers’ investments made to improve employees’ health should be abolished.

CASS highlighted the importance of life-long learning and active labour market measures. It suggested older people should be one target group in the adult education strategy. The report’s authors went on to say that measures taking into account the specific needs of older people should be extended to increase their participation in life-long learning and the active labour market.

Liina Osila, Reelika Leetmaa, Praxis Center for Policy Studies

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