Changed attitudes towards older workers

According to a qualitative study on ageing workers, it appears that attitudes have changed and are more positive towards older staff. Appreciation of older workers, investing in their ability and knowledge and seeing them as a valuable resource is likely to become a new trend in working life. However, the study indicates that the reshaping of working life practices to foster long careers has only just begun.

A qualitative case study, New age contract, which was carried out in 2001, emphasises that long working careers can only be built when working conditions are good and reasonable demands are made of people at all ages. Longer careers than are currently the norm will not be possible unless consideration is given to older workers’ work capacity and life situations. Practices must be established to encourage older workers to stay longer at work and to maintain high productivity levels.

Increasing employment levels of older workers

Since the mid 1990s – after the recession of the previous years – employment levels have increased faster among older workers (aged 55 to 64 years) than among any other employee group. However, Finland remains well behind the other Nordic countries with regard to the employment level of older workers. Moreover, the average age of retirement has not increased significantly and employees continue to seek retirement before their official retirement age. It is not yet possible to determine whether the increased employment rate is due to the long economic boom and group effects, or whether a permanent change is taking place in older people’s labour market position.

Prolonging work careers and postponing retirement have been among the aims of employment policy for the past 10 years. In Finland, the most significant efforts towards achieving these objectives have been the National Programme on Ageing Workers 1998–2002, as well as subsequent programmes and pension reforms, in particular the 2005 pension reform (FI0403203F; FI0602202F).

Companies still encourage early retirement

On the one hand, according to the opinions of human resource (HR) managers, organisations regard the ageing of the workforce as a positive issue, appreciating the strengths of older workers which include loyalty and good social skills. On the other hand, ageing is perceived as being associated with lower energy levels and resistance to change in the workplace. At the same time, the managers emphasised that the consequences of ageing in terms of work capacity vary for each individual. Nevertheless, employees are treated on the basis of their age and, even if older workers are linked with positive skills, in practice, the negative aspects are generally highlighted.

All of the organisations studied had a definite view of an ideal age profile, which justified their practice of using age as an important criterion in recruitment and dismissal situations. Development potential, up-to-date education and future prospects were associated with young employees. In recruitment processes, applicants aged over 50 years were only considered in special cases. In dismissal situations, the use of early exit pathways was the easiest way to find an agreement between the employer and the local trade union.

A social standard has emerged in working life according to which people should leave work early while still physically and functionally in good condition. Employees aged over 60 years had not experienced age discrimination in the case studies but there was a tacit expectation that employees over 60 years of age should retire.

Lack of age strategies

According to the study, attitudes towards older employees varied by sector. Companies in the private services, hotel and restaurant, and trade sectors were far more likely to employ a young labour force rather than hire older workers. In most companies, especially in the public sector, age concerns related to the overall age profile of the workforce, transfer of experience and older workers’ ability to cope.

It was considered problematic, for example, to relocate persons with a reduced work capacity. Furthermore, no special jobs were available in any of the companies to suit the capacity of older workers. Part-time retirement seemed to be one of the few means to encourage older workers to stay at work.

A more positive culture

The organisations studied showed signs of a more positive attitude towards older workers. First, there were growing reservations about using early exit routes for older employees. This was especially the case among manufacturing companies, which were perhaps most concerned about labour shortages. Secondly, some examples of good practice were identified in encouraging older workers to stay at work longer, namely:

  • a weekend or other course was developed to maintain work ability;
  • older workers were released from night work if they requested this;
  • part-time retirement was a real option;
  • programmes were introduced to find lighter work tasks for those with reduced physical work capacity, thus avoiding the use of a disability pension.

All of the organisations indicated a more positive culture towards older workers and adaptations to the reality of an older labour force. However, the change towards positive age attitudes and practices was only just emerging.

About the study

The data of the study derive from qualitative interviews in 10 different case study organisations representing both the private and public sector. The interviews were conducted in 2001. In each case study organisation, the HR manager, the shop steward and two to three older employees were interviewed about the situation of older workers in the organisation.

Anna Pärnänen, Statistics Finland

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