Challenges to overcome for older workers

AE Trainer

Despite the growing policy attention on active ageing and the increasing participation figures across countries, older workers still face challenges that hamper remaining employed longer or, conversely, stimulate early retirement.

These challenges can be classified into three categories:

(a) institutional challenges (related to the system level);
(b) situational challenges (related to the organisation level);
(c) dispositional challenges (related to the individual level) (based on Cross, 1981, among others).

The challenges at these three levels consist of an intertwined set of barriers, affecting each other at all three levels, as described in Table 1. Systemic challenges are those practices and procedures that exclude or discourage older workers from remaining employed longer. Institutional barriers are found within the system itself and are often structural in nature.

A 2012 Eurobarometer survey shows that ‘lack of opportunities to retire gradually, exclusion from training and negative perceptions of older people among employees are perceived to be the main obstacles stopping people aged 55 years and over from working. Employees aged 55 years and over are perceived to be experienced and reliable, but less likely to be seen as being open to new ideas or up to date with new technology’ (European Commission, 2012b, p. 8).

It is useful to see whether demographically determined trends in labour supply create a market conjuncture more conducive to the employment of older workers. The demand for older workers might automatically increase and employment opportunities develop as younger workers become scarce. Further, generous financial security (high pre-pension for example) will make it more attractive to stop working at an earlier age, pulling people out of employment.

Situational challenges, arising from one’s situation or environment at a given point, relate to a person’s life context, including the social, organisational and physical surroundings. Empirical research shows that human resources managers, executives and colleagues regard older employees as being less adaptable to new technologies (Cedefop, 2010). ‘Prejudices about older workers remain a powerful barrier; employers continue to suspect that [for older workers] being unemployed indicates incompetence or lack of motivation’ (Cedefop, 2011c, p. 133).

The 2012 Eurobarometer survey on active ageing confirms this picture and concludes that ‘workplace age discrimination is the most widespread form of age discrimination with one in five citizens having personally experienced or witnessed it. […] More respondents in the 12 new Member States compared to the 15 old Member States say they have personally been discriminated against (15% versus 12%) and have witnessed it (32% versus 25%)’ (European Commission, 2012a, p. 7). Dispositional challenges are those related to attitudes, self-perceptions and individual characteristics. ‘A particular challenge for guidance professionals is to help people acquire the detailed labour market knowledge, career management skills [and confidence] that they require (Cedefop, 2008a, p. 114).The barriers are diverse and cannot be reduced to a single factor; in many cases distinctions between the systematic, situational and individual barriers are not easy to make. Nevertheless, the distinction appears to provide a useful classification to address differences in types of barriers individuals face and different types of outreach strategies providers-/policy-makers can, and should, use to mitigate these barriers and to increase participation of older workers.