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Plenty of life left in older workers18th of May 2015
The baby-boomers of the post-WW II years are fast leaving the world of work. But as birth rates tumble across much of Europe, can we afford to let them go … and do they really want to go? Hartley Milner explores why attitudes towards older workers are beginning to change.
Sid in stores had given his best years to the auto components distributor, rarely missing a day through malady or mishap in near on half a century. In at silly o’clock each morning to process overnight parts requests, Sid would never leave until satisfied all the day’s orders had been shipped out per his 24-hour delivery pledge.
From brake pads to contact breakers, it was Sid’s proud boast that he had built up the most comprehensive stock range in the UK, and if a component was not in store he had the contacts
to promptly source it from anywhere in the world, whatever the vehicle make, model or vintage.
Dubbed the ‘King of Parts’, Sid had become something of a legend in the industry, earning awards for his warehouse management skills and an unrivalled reputation for customer care that had helped establish his employer as the ‘go-to’ supplier for much of the auto repair trade.
That was until a buyout of the company when the new owners decided to launch an ‘efficiency drive’ and run the distribution operations from their central IT department, making the role of warehouse manager redundant. Viewing the shelf-stacking job he was offered as a further slap in the face, Sid took his severance package and went off fishing.
First to suffer was the business’s goodwill. Very soon, customers began calling in to inquire about overdue orders or to complain they had received the wrong component. Their frustrations grew when they found themselves confronted by a myriad of irritating phone menu options, only to be put through to an anonymous voice mailbox promising a response as soon as possible when they needed answers now. Emailed messages achieved no better outcomes.
Worrying stock control issues then began to creep in. Inventory tracking failures caused overstocking of some components, impacting on the company’s cash flow, while shortages of other parts led to unfulfilled orders and more unhappy customers, and an inevitable slide in revenues. Clearly, the new arrangements were not working and prompt action was needed.
Sid was barely six months into his retirement when he received the SOS. If the terms were right, would he accept an open-ended contract to return in his former role, to oversee the reinstatement of the previous regime and help rebuild the company’s damaged reputation and fast dwindling customer base.
Though now in his late 60s, Sid was up for the challenge and more than up to the task. Using his skills, experience and personal good name in the industry, he turned the situation around in under 12 months, regaining all but a few less forgiving customers.
“There were two lessons to come out of this debacle,” said business troubleshooter Paul Petherick. “If something ain’t broke, why fix it? And if you have an essential cog in a wheel and it’s still got plenty of wear left in it, then why replace it – like they did Sid?”
See beyond the grey hairs
Petherick was the first to be called in when the business began to nosedive, and it was on his advice that the directors, grudgingly, agreed to go caps in hand to the ‘King of Parts’. “It was the obvious solution to correct a big mistake,” he said. “We still encounter this from time to time; where employers have a real issue seeing beyond the grey hairs and laughter lines to the valuable asset that a mature worker can be to a company.
Curiously, we find that it is often older managers who make such judgements, being of a generation when the retirement age was set in stone, or perhaps simply regarding themselves as exceptions to the rule that the years bring only decline.
“The truth is, older workers are generally more responsible, punctual, dependable, loyal and focused, and they can draw on two assets in particular that can only be acquired over time – experience and wisdom.
“We should be tapping more into this pool of experience and knowledge at our disposal and nurture it with new challenges, not discard people as deadwood or sideline them for promotion just because they have reached a certain age. Thankfully, we are seeing such contradictory views increasingly on the wane in Europe as governments cajole their ageing populations into remaining in the workplace for longer.”
In fact, the retirement age is being pushed back across much of the EU as pensions and other state benefits become increasingly unaffordable. People are living longer and are being expected to do more to pay for their care in old age. Currently, around one in six Europeans are aged over 65, but by 2060 it will be one in three.
Declining birth rates, due to lower fertility levels, mean the Eurozone will lose a significant number of workers by 2050, according to the International Longevity Centre – UK (ILC), the leading think tank on living longer and demographic change. It predicts that Austria’s working population will be down by six per cent, the Netherlands by nine per cent, Portugal 14 per cent, Spain 33 per cent, Italy 15 per cent and Greece 24 per cent. The biggest loser will be Germany, which faces losing 28 per cent of its workforce.
All this is priming a demographic time bomb that could have a devastating impact on tax revenues in member states and on the productivity of businesses.
Increasing the number of older workers could help stave off the crisis (workers aged over 50 contributed 2.5 trillion euros to the Eurozone GDP in 2013). The ILC warns that without a substantial rise in workforce productivity to offset the fall in employment, GDP per capita growth across the region may only reach one per cent per year up to 2050. It speculates that by the end of 2015 alone, higher participation rates among the over-50s could deliver 12.6 per cent more economic output per person, in real terms, than if they remain the same.
A long way to go
However, the ILC stresses that the region has a long way to go. Just one in three people aged 60-64 are in employment across Europe at present and in a third of member states no more than one out of five are in work.
“It’s clear that we will not be able to subsist solely on our state pension in future, and we may struggle even with the added support of a private pension, so it seems certain that we will all be forced to work for longer, though it will require a fresh mindset,” Petherick continued. “People of retirement age today are generally fitter and more active than they were 40 or 50 years ago, and a growing number are keen to continue working until they feel they have nothing more to offer.
“Retirement can actually hasten your decline into old age. It can decrease your feelings of wellbeing as you slide into inactivity, increase the probability of clinical depression due to feelings of isolation and even increase the probability of having at least one diagnosed physical condition.
“For employers, having to find an experienced replacement for an experienced worker can be time-consuming and costly. We point out to business owners that continuity of employment is key to keeping a company successful, and loyal, long-serving employees provide that stability. If a worker says they are keen to stay on, then it indicates that they are happy in their job and will continue to give it their all.”
This was certainly true of German worker Werner Brockmann. Werner had spent 48 years working as an electrician for rail operator Deutsche Bahn and was not looking to pull the plug on his career just yet. As the 62-year-old approached his retirement date, the company offered him a deal that allowed him to swap 13 per cent of his salary for an additional nine weeks holiday.
“I enjoy my work and wanted to continue, but also have a little more time to spend with my family and to do other things,” he said. “Now, I can have almost the whole summer at home. It has worked out well for myself and my employer.”
German companies have been struggling to find competent, highly skilled workers since before the recession and were coming under mounting pressure to compensate by offering existing employees incentives to postpone their retirement. One popular move has been to introduce flexible working to provide older staff with a better work-life balance.
Deutsche Bahn has brought in other changes, such as providing additional lifting gear to move heavy parts and ergonomic seats that provide extra back support. Meanwhile, in 2011, BMW opened an assembly line where all the workers were aged over 50. The experimental plant featured workstations of adjustable height and less rigid wooden floors to reduce joint strain.