Alan Walker
Professor of Social Policy
University of Sheffield

Introduction

The main purpose of this article is to report the results of some recent European research which surveyed the extent of good practice in the management of ageing workforces. My main focus is on policies and human resource practices within organisations and not the demand and supply of labour nor the abilities of older workers. Discrimination and other age barriers can operate independently of work ability. The research involved seven Member States of the EU. The article consists of four main parts.

To begin with I will examine the changing context within which organisations are operating their human resource policies and practices, especially the ageing of the workforce and changing public policies, and summarise the main forms of age discrimination. Secondly I will outline the ‘Age Barriers’ project – the first European study of measures to combat ageism – and how we defined good practice. The third and main part of the article uses the results of the project to distil some key lessons for labour market participation about the factors which lead organisations to try to counteract age discrimination and the essential ingredients of successful policies. The fourth part of the article will emphasise the importance of moving beyond specific and sometimes tokenistic examples of good practice towards an integrated age management strategy which focuses on the prevention of the negative aspects of workforce ageing. The conclusion will highlight some key action points for all participants in the labour market.

The changing context of age management

It is not an overstatement to say that the impact of population ageing on employment and the labour market is one of the most important and urgent issues confronting European societies. European policy makers, employers and trade unions are increasingly having to come to terms with a new paradox concerning age and employment. On the one hand there is an increase in the average age of the economically active population in the EU. Over the next 10 years the age structure of the population of working age will change significantly: the numbers of young people (15-19) will decline by over 1 million (-5 per cent) and those aged 20-29 will fall by 9 million (-17 per cent) , while the numbers of persons aged 50-59 will grow by 5.5 million (+12 per cent) and the 60-64 age group will grow by 1 million (European Commission, 1996). However, on the other hand, as a result of the continuous lowering of labour force exit thresholds and the operation of age discrimination in the labour market, people over 40 are regarded as nearing the end of their working lives. This has contributed to the shrinking of the period of economic activity particularly among men and, with the extension of life, puts pressure on Europe’s social protection systems (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1. Employment among men aged 55–64

1985 1997
Belgium 43.1 32.2
Denmark 63.4 62.2
Germany 55.4 45.8
Greece 65.6 59.0
Spain 56.1 50.9
France 42.1 33.2
Ireland 65.9 59.0
Italy 52.6 41.6
Luxembourg 40.8 31.6
Netherlands 45.7 42.6
Austria 47.7 42.4
Portugal 62.7 58.3
Finland 48.7 38.5
Sweden 75.6 64.1
UK 62.3 58.6
EU15 54.3 46.6

Table 2. Required contribution rate  

Replacement Contributors/Pensioners
Rate 3.5 2.5 1.5
30 % 8.6 12.0 20.0
40 % 11.6 16.0 26.8
50 % 14.5 20.0 33.5
60 % 17.4 24.0 40.2

This new and increasingly urgent paradox has to be addressed at both macro- and micro- levels (by policy makers and within organisations). All European governments have reversed the public support they previously gave to early exit from the labour force and are seeking ways of reducing the opportunities for and costs of early retirement (Delsen and Reday-Mulvay, 1996). Some employers are also reassessing their attitudes towards older workers, with some even constructing a positive ‘business case’ for employing this group. This ‘business case’ is built upon five points: the return on investment in human capital; the prevention of skill shortages; maximising recruitment potential; responding to demographic change; and promoting diversity in the workforce (Walker, 1995). Some trade unions too are reconsidering their support for early exit strategies.

In short there is an emerging case for combating age barriers in job recruitment and training on the grounds of pragmatism, commercialism, good human resource practice and in the interests of justice and fairness. However practical action in pursuit of these aims has been taken by only a minority of European employers and public authorities.

European Policies on Ageing Workers

The issue of workforce ageing and the problem of discrimination against older workers has moved up the agenda over the past decade. When the European Observatory on Ageing and Older People was established, in 1990, it identified age and employment as one of the four key policy areas it would monitor (the others were incomes and living standards, health and social care, and social integration) (Walker, Guillemard and Alber, 1991, 1993). Consequently the 1993 European Year of Older People and Solidarity Between the Generations was partly focused on this issue, with the publication of the first major report on age discrimination against older workers in the EC (Drury, 1993). In addition the Eurobarometer survey specially commissioned for the European Year revealed, for the first time, the widespread public perception of age discrimination (Walker, 1993, p.26). At the end of the European Year older workers were confirmed, in documents from both the Commission and the Parliament, as a priority issue. A long series of research and policy papers from DGV have repeatedly drawn attention to the importance of workforce ageing.

In mid-1993 the Commission produced the White Paper, Growth, Competitiveness and Employment which was approved by the heads of state as a basis for future EU action. The White Paper set the important strategic goals of a more flexible workforce and more flexible employment practices in order to meet the challenges of global competition. It provided the first public EU recognition of the implications of the ageing workforce, although it did not propose specific actions for older workers. The 1994 White Paper European Social Policy: a way forward for the Union did not specifically mention older workers but referred to the economic need for older people to make an active contribution to society.

At the December 1994 European Council meeting in Essen, the Heads of Government and State confirmed the fight against unemployment as a paramount task of the European Union and as the central objective of economic policy. The European Council Declaration highlighted five key areas for action to improve employment, the fifth of which, improving measures to help groups which are particularly hard hit by unemployment, stated that ‘special attention should be paid to the difficult situation of unemployed women and older employees’. The French Presidency of the European Council, in June 1995, saw the first political declaration at the EU level of the need for special actions in this field. The Resolution on the Employment of Older Workers emphasised two key principles:

  • the need to redouble efforts to adapt professional training and conditions of work to older workers’ needs;
  • measures should be taken to prevent the exclusion of older workers from the labour market and older workers should have sufficient financial resources.

The Resolution proposed specific actions to be taken by national governments and/or the social partners including raising awareness among employers of the consequences of making older workers redundant, promoting the reintegration of older unemployed workers and eliminating possible legislative barriers to the employment of older workers, although these are not binding on the member states. The Resolution also called on the European Commission to promote the exchange of information and good practice concerning the employment of older workers across the EU (for further information on EU actions on older workers see Drury, 1995).

The European Councils in 1996 and 1997 emphasised long-term unemployment and youth employment, but the National Action Plans (NAPs), agreed in Amsterdam and the subsequent Luxembourg Jobs Summit in November 1997, provide a framework for the development and assessment of active employment policies but , so far, this potential has not been realised with regard to workforce ageing. The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty (Article 13) empowers the Commission to propose actions against discrimination. The European Council Summit in Cardiff in June 1998 re-emphasised the need to pay special attention to older workers as part of the priority to develop a skilled and adaptable workforce, and the importance of tackling discrimination in the labour market. In October 1998 the Vienna Summit also highlighted the issue of workforce ageing. The 1999 Employment Guidelines included a reference to the need to encourage older workers to participate actively in working life, and to the importance of access to lifelong learning opportunities for older workers. The 1999 Finnish Presidency ensured that this issue was at the top of the EU agenda and, therefore, the 2000 Employment Guidelines included references to ageing workers. This means that the National Action Plans have the potential to act as a monitoring instrument with regard to Member States’ policies on older workers.

The Age Barriers Project

In this context of changes in employment policy within the EU the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions launched, in April 1994, a European project on Combating Age Barriers in Job Recruitment and Training. The project was focused on initiatives in favour of the retention, reintegration and retraining of older workers and involved seven Member States: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In addition some limited material was collected from two newer Member States, Finland and Sweden. The principal objectives of the project were:

  • to collect information about good practice initiatives designed to combat age barriers in recruitment and training in the different member states;
  • to examine the perspectives of the social partners, with particular attention to proposals for removing age barriers;
  • to document and assess a small number of initiatives – including both workplace and non-workplace initiatives as well as covering the public and private sectors – in order to highlight the lessons to be learnt from the implementation of good practice with regard to older workers.

Each research team prepared a national report comprising four elements: a review of ageing and employment issues in their own country; an outline of the perspectives of the social partners, based on a workshop organised by the team; a portfolio of around 20 initiatives demonstrating good practice in age management; and 2-3 in-depth case studies of organisations in the portfolio. Despite the constraints on the research project, set mainly by resources and time, the national research teams were able to seek out a wide range of initiatives and to include some detailed case studies.

Four project reports have been published by the European Foundation. The main one Combating Age Barriers in Employment – European Research Report synthesises the material collected by the national research teams (Walker, 1997). The report’s five chapters summarise the key labour market issues in the nine Member States (including Finland and Sweden); describe the various dimensions of good practice reported by the national experts; use the in-depth case studies to emphasise the main lessons to be learnt from the implementation of good practice; and summarise the main findings and make recommendations for action, by all of the parties involved, to combat age barriers. In addition to the main report, the Foundation has published Combating Age Barriers in Employment, A European Portfolio of Good Practice, which contains brief details of the wide range of initiatives found in the nine countries (Walker and Taylor, 1998). Then there is a summary of the research and, finally, a Guide to Good Practice (Walker, 1999). From the outset the project has been aimed at influencing policy and practice, particularly among the social partners and, therefore, the publications take a very practical form.

Good Practice in Age Management

This was the first European research to concentrate on good practice in the recruitment and training of ageing workers. But what is ‘good practice’? It is most usefully defined with respect to specific policies and in this research we used the five main dimensions of age management in organisations – job recruitment and exit; training, development and promotion; flexible working practice; ergonomics; job design; and changing attitudes towards ageing workers (Casey, Metcalf and Lakey, 1993) – to categorise aspects of good practice (though we separated exit policies and created a seventh ‘other’ category). Below good practice is defined in relation to each of the five areas of age management.

In general terms though, we might say that good practice in the employment of older workers consists of action to combat age barriers, whether directly or indirectly, and providing an environment in which each individual is able to achieve his or her potential without being disadvantaged by their age. In order to reach this goal policies do not necessarily have to be labelled ‘older worker’ policies – there may be general human resource (HR) strategies that are of particular benefit to mature employees. For example a system of annualised hours has proved to be particularly helpful to ageing workers with caring responsibilities but it is not intended as an older worker-specific HR strategy. Inevitably the selection of examples of good practice entails a value judgement that a particular initiative is reducing age barriers in employment and that this is a desirable outcome. The dilemmas associated with this sort of judgement and the assessment of good practice are discussed in the main report (Walker, 1997).

It may be helpful to provide some illustrations of the concept of good practice underlying this project and this is arranged according to the five different aspects of age management.

1. Job Recruitment

Here good practice means ensuring that older workers have either equal or special access to the available jobs and that potential applicants are not discriminated against either directly or indirectly. For example, the absence of age bars and other discriminatory mechanisms in advertisements and other methods of recruitment. Another example is positive discrimination in recruitment to overcome age barriers. Good practice may also consist of self-employment. In non-workplace settings good practice may include specific skills training to improve job seeking/finding or employment counselling and job search support. It could also mean the provision of support to a self-help group of older people designed to promote their own employment or that of other mature people.

2. Training, Development and Promotion

Here good practice means ensuring that older workers are not neglected in training and career development, that opportunities for learning are offered throughout the working life and that positive action is taken where necessary to compensate for discrimination in the past. Examples of policies and practices designed to achieve these ends include the creation of a learning environment at the workplace; ensuring that training is available regardless of age; and making training ‘older worker friendly’ by tailoring it to the learning methods and experience of older employees or by providing special courses to redevelop the ability and enthusiasm to learn. Good practice in this area may be promoted by non-workplace based initiatives, for example, by the provision of training to older workers in community programmes, and short-term placements.

3. Flexible Working Practice

Here good practice may be defined as affording older workers greater flexibility in their hours of work or in the timing and nature of their retirement. Of course such flexibility may benefit younger as well as older employees (as with annualised hours) but, specifically, with regard to older people, such flexibility may be an important method of retaining this group in employment or provide an attractive feature for recruitment purposes. Certainly there is evidence of a desire on the part of older employees for greater flexibility in working practices and, therefore, good practice consists of accommodating these wishes as far as is practicable in different organisational settings. Examples of such flexibility include gradual retirement, flexibility over retirement age (including the possibility of working beyond normal retirement age) and the provision of training to older workers in community programmes, and short-term work placements.

4. Ergonomics/Job Design

Good practice with regard to job design may take the form of preventative measures or those intended to compensate for physical decline. On the preventative front there is a wide range of ways in which work induced illness and disability may be prevented by improved job design, for example by the elimination of heavy lifting or violent twisting movements, the provision of beneficial lighting and seating. For those ageing workers that are experiencing physical decline it is possible to modify the workplace in order to assist them to maintain their productivity and, therefore, to remain in employment. For example changes in lighting levels to compensate for poorer eyesight or alterations to workstations in order to avoid arduous bending and reaching.

5. Changing Attitudes Within Organisations

The introduction of good practice in recruitment and training rests on the commitment of key personnel, such as managers, recruiters and employment service staff. Therefore changing the attitudes of such staff towards older workers may be a vital prerequisite to the development of good practice for older workers. Aspects of good practice in this sphere would include a positive approach to combating ageism and dispelling the way this is associated with ageing workers by, for example, the presentation of evidence from a variety of sources demonstrating the benefits of employing and investing in this group. Such evidence may include examples from within the organisation or from other similar ones or the results of more broadly-based scientific research. As well as raising awareness about the need for good practice in the recruitment and training of older workers there may be a need for special training in equal opportunities, with reference to age, or in the particular needs of an ageing workforce.

Ageing and Employment

Each national report provided a labour market context for the main examination of good practice initiatives. Overall these emphasised the continuation of falling employment rates among older workers in most EU countries and the crucial role played by public policy in encouraging the early exit trend. However this policy had unforeseen consequences such as the devaluation of older workers as well as predictable ones, like the increase in pension costs.

As far as older workers themselves are concerned, the reality they face in the labour market, particularly the semi-skilled and unskilled, is higher than average non-employment and long term unemployment in most countries. A key source of this social and economic exclusion is age discrimination and this project generated yet more evidence of ageism in the labour markets of the Member States (with the exceptions of Finland and Sweden). In short, ageing workers are under-represented in recruitment and training and over-represented in early exit from employment.

This research project also produced some unique information on the perspectives of the social partners in the different countries represented. Conflict is more common than consensus but there were agreements in several countries about the great importance of age barriers as a policy issue, even if this did not extend to the measures that are required to combat it. There are interesting differences between countries in the positions adopted by the social partners. For example, while French trade unions are generally pro-early exit, several German ones are sceptical about it. The positions of employers in the two countries reveal a reverse tendency: pro early exit in Germany and beginning to oppose it in France. This aspect of the research also emphasised the dilemmas that are confronting trade unions across the EU as a result of the coincidence of workforce ageing and high unemployment.

Good Practice in Combating Age Barriers

The main theme of the research was combating age barriers in job recruitment and training, but the national research teams collected examples of good practice in all five areas of age management. A total of 159 examples were made available in the national portfolios of good practice and, along with eight extra examples from Finland and Sweden, most of them have been presented in the European Portfolio of Good Practice. It is often the case that the boundaries between the different dimensions of good practice in age management are blurred. This is not surprising: organisations that have developed one element of good practice are unlikely to have done so in isolation from other aspects of HR management. Also it is frequently the case that to achieve good practice in recruitment or training a more wide ranging transformation in HR practice may be necessary or, alternatively, training itself may not be the main goal but merely a means to achieve aspects of good practice, such as changing attitudes or work processes.

The majority of the portfolio examples are located in relatively large private, profit-making organisations. Initiatives focused on job recruitment for older workers are much less common than those concerned with flexible working practices and job training. Attempts to change organisational attitudes towards older workers are rare.

The UK examples focus mainly on job recruitment and flexible working practices. The Italian ones are all concerned with job recruitment and training. For Belgium and France the most common area of good practice in age management is flexible working practices. The Greek examples are mostly concerned with training, as are the German and Dutch ones.

Developing Good Practice

The main goal of the research was to emphasise the important lessons that can be learned, in terms of transferring good practice initiatives to other organisations and countries, from the 22 detailed case studies carried out in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. These case studies form the centrepiece of this project and, despite the time constraints, represent substantial investigations on the part of the national researchers, which included site visits and interviews. The result is a very rich source of information concerning not just the nature of good practice initiatives but how they were developed and implemented and what has been their impact. The case studies are listed in the Appendix.

Most of the case studies (14) are initiatives taken by private companies, three are in the public sector and the remaining five are non-profit making agencies. Most of the case studies are workplace-based (i.e. initiatives taking place within organisations directly responsible for employing the workers concerned). The size of the organisations studied varies widely, from 5 to 18,800 employees but, in fact, this dimension did not prove significant in determining the illustrative power of a particular case study. Some major European organisations are among the case studies, including some very modern ‘high tech’ companies and local authorities, indicating that good practice in age management is not confined to any industrial backwater.

What factors influence the decision of an organisation to develop good practice in combating age barriers? There are three main ones – two push and one pull factor – but the precise order of importance differs between organisations. First of all, there is the specific economic and labour market setting in which an organisation is operating. For example several initiatives were either developed in response to labour shortages or such shortages played an important role in determining their focus. Other initiatives were encouraged by labour surpluses. The shortage of qualified nursing staff is a familiar problem throughout Europe and two of the initiatives – L’Incontro (Italy) and the Onze Lieve Vrouw Middelares Hospital (Belgium) – were aimed directly at overcoming this deficiency by tapping into the pool of older nurses. In contrast the Employment Agency in Trento and the French insurance and chemicals companies introduced their good practice initiative in response to labour surpluses.

Secondly there are changes in public policy, such as the closing-off of early exit subsidies or the provision of special training grants and support for job creation. For example, the change in public policy favouring partial rather than full early retirement influenced the French insurance and chemical companies in their decision to alter their exit policies. The Dutch Job Exchange programme for teachers resulted in large part from a change in government policy towards the education sector.

Of course government, central and local, may influence good practice in different ways: it may pay for its development , it may regulate to ensure it happens, it may exhort organisations to comply with it or, as a direct employer it may introduce good practice into its own machinery. Public sector subsidies were essential to ensure that several of the initiatives got off the ground – including the Dutch Job Exchange project, Sahlwerke Bremen and the POPE recruitment agency (UK). Three case studies involved local government and demonstrate the advantages of such semi-autonomous forms of administration. In particular the cases of GFAW (Germany) and the Trento Employment Agency illustrate the enormous potential for both job creation and the promotion of good practice in age management where there is devolved responsibility for employment and training.

As well as being a positive influence on the development of good practice the public sector may also act as an inhibitor. This negative aspect of the role of the public sector was illustrated in several initiatives – the main culprits being the social security and redundancy payments systems (Job Exchange, L’Incontro Coop) and the tax system (SISEMA).

The third source of impetus towards good practice is organisational culture. By this I mean the HR tradition, current personnel policies and management style which, together, may support and encourage the development of good practice or, alternatively, favour the creation and retention of age barriers. Because the case studies are examples of good practice they provide insights into the critical influence of organisational culture in one direction only. However, as indicated below, they also demonstrate how certain negative features of organisational culture may be overcome.

Some commercial organisations have long established traditions of consensual management and responsiveness to employees. Sometimes this approaches social partnership or what is called ‘stakeholder capitalism’, as in the case of the Wilkhahn furniture company, and sometimes it reflects a more paternalistic family-based tradition, as with TITAN and DELTA in Greece. Thus a cultural context favourable to good practice in age management may be created by either the craft traditions or the family orientation of a particular company. But it may also derive from very different and more urgent contemporary pressures, as in the case of Fontijne Holland, which has a pro-training culture because of its need to survive in the highly competitive machine manufacturing sector. Similarly with the UK company Glaxo R & D which regards the retention and retraining of older staff as a vital element in maintaining its competitive advantage.

Implementing Good Practice

If the examples of good practice are to be used to maximum advantage by the key actors in the labour market it is important to know how they were implemented and, in particular, what lessons may be passed on about the successes and pit-falls of that process.

As was noted above, in order to ensure the development of good practice in all quarters of the workplace, it may be necessary to embark on general action to change the organisational culture. The introduction of an ‘age awareness’ programme throughout an organisation is one, comprehensive, route to achieving cultural change and the one followed by the London Borough of Hounslow. While most of the other workplace initiatives did not go that far, it is clear that careful planning and preparation was one of the main keys to successful implementation. Fontijne Holland provides an outstanding example of pro-active implementation – including consultation with and responsiveness to staff and targeted publicity material published in the company magazine. The company’s approach to implementation is a model of good practice for others to follow.

Much of the research on age barriers in organisations highlights the potential blockage on the implementation of good practice created by the discriminatory actions of line managers. (These may derive from discriminatory beliefs and attitudes or perceived pressures to achieve specific business goals, or both.) This was one of the factors that prompted DSM (Netherlands) to introduce a comprehensive ‘age aware’ HR strategy. In fact DSM already had a very positive organisational culture but, nonetheless, age barriers can still survive in an enlightened HR environment and, in this case, they were being perpetuated by some line managers. The attitudes of some line managers were identified as having a similarly negative effect within Glaxo R & D. Another UK company, St Ivel, had experienced problems in the implementation of its policies to combat age barriers due to the stereotypical attitudes of local managers. In response the HR department insisted that managers should try out older workers in positions they assumed were unsuitable.

Regardless of how receptive an organisational culture may be to the implementation of good practice, problems can occur in the process itself. The initiatives developed by Stahlwerke Bremen and DSM both encountered such problems – initial difficulties in persuading older trainees to attend seminars and lack of experience in the implementation of age awareness strategies – and overcame them by, on the one hand, redoubling their efforts to persuade older workers to take part as trainers and, on the other, by gradual policy implementation and experimentation.

The implementation of policies to combat age barriers also creates dilemmas for trade unions. However, although concerns were expressed by trade unions in the initial stages of several case studies, including L’Incontro and DSM, once the issues were explained to them their fears were allayed and they became supporters.

The Impact of Good Practice

Needless to say the most important outcomes of the 22 case studies are the actual achievement of one or more aspects of good practice and the practical demonstration of the value of employing and training older workers. This is not surprising at all because they were selected as exemplars of good practice in the countries concerned. In this respect many of the case studies are shining examples, beacons of light, for others to follow. They should make a huge contribution to dispelling the myths that older workers are not productive and that they are not interested in training. Also the fact that so many commercial companies have begun to combat age barriers is some proof of the existence of a business case for doing so.

There are many other positive outcomes from the initiatives as well as some negative ones. On the positive side, from the perspective of older employees, there is an improved sense of well-being resulting from feeling useful and productive and, in some cases, the economic and social benefits of reintegration in the labour market. On the negative front there is the experience by some participants of being second class citizens in comparison with those in the mainstream of the organisations.

Some of the outcomes for the organisations concerned were unintended spin-offs from the main purpose of the initiative, including some significant economic benefits. Improved morale and team working are associated with the Fontijne and Stahlwerke Bremen training initiatives and the two IBM case studies. Reductions in staff turnover have accompanied the L’Incontro Coop’s recruitment project – a particularly important finding in view of the high staff turnover experienced by many health and social care agencies. A project linked to higher education institutions to transfer skills between generations has developed out of the Sernet initiative. Moreover, because of the good practice ethos that permeated the development of this initiative IBM reports improved relations with its trade unions. Increased productivity and higher quality service to the public are unexpected benefits flowing from the SISEMA training initiative. While the Trento environmental restoration and improvement agency calculates that it achieves a substantial saving (1 million lire) for every employee when compared with the cost of early retirement. Moreover the Trento initiative doubles as an example of good practice in job creation in the field of environment protection as well as in age management.

Guidelines for Good Practice

When it comes to the main lessons to be learned from the implementation of the good practice initiatives there are four main indicators of success for those intending to introduce good practice into other organisations (assuming that the external stimuli exist for such action).

  1. Backing from senior management. There is a wide variety of different reasons why employers may support good practice in age management but, without it, an initiative is not likely to proceed very far. This much almost goes without saying but, in thinking about the transfer of good practice, it is important to bear in mind that, in several initiatives, this support had to be campaigned for. The role of the head of HR in the French chemicals company and in the UK cases of St Ivel, Glaxo and Hounslow proved decisive in championing the cause of good practice.
  2. A supportive HR environment. This does not necessarily have to be overtly older worker friendly in advance of the introduction of measures to combat age barriers. That was not the case, for example, with the three French companies but the value of training was recognised. All of the workplace case studies benefited from a supportive HR climate. In a few this included placing a high value on older workers (eg. Stahlwerke Bremen, Wilkhahn GmbH and Glaxo). Where this occurred the companies involved had sound business reasons for doing so. As the case studies show, a supportive HR environment may be created by both a traditional culture (such as the Greek informal social contract model) and a modern managerial style (as in France and the UK).
  3. Commitment from the ageing workers involved. Although all but one of the workplace initiatives is the result of top-down management policy decisions there is no doubt that the support of the older workers concerned was a vital element of the success of the case studies. This was not always forthcoming initially and several organisations have gone to considerable lengths to persuade older workers to accept and ‘own’ the initiative, such as the running of special seminars. In the case of training initiatives the most important factor in guaranteeing commitment is the principle that courses must be geared to their specific needs and employ methods, such as on the job learning, that they can engage with readily. In other words training courses should be developed in conjunction with ageing workers.
  4. Careful and flexible implementation. If all of the other elements behind the development of good practice are secured then everything rests on the implementation process. The experience provided by the case studies shows that there are nine steps to be followed to guarantee successful implementation:
    • careful preparation, including research in recruitment trends and age profiles of employees and labour market projections;
    • open communication both with staff generally and with the target group about the objectives of the initiatives, including the use of seminars, workshops and newsletters;
    • early involvement of trade unions, works councils and staff associations;
      the early involvement of older workers themselves to take part in the operation of the initiative, which greatly assists with the implementation process;
    • education and consciousness raising among line managers;
    • staged implementation, including a pilot phase both to test the initiative and to demonstrate to any doubters that it can be effective (this can be carried out in a section of the organisation already predisposed to good practice in age management as a way of multiplying the impact of the experiment), regular monitoring and feedback with adjustments to the initiative if necessary;
    • periodic assessment of impact and feedback once the implementation is complete;
    • constant communication with all employees in order to avoid the development of ‘them and us’ attitudes;
    • attention to other aspects of the working environment, such as arduous tasks and conditions, which may inhibit the example of good practice from achieving its intended effect.

In addition to these nine steps it is undoubtedly the case that the implementation of a specific good practice initiative will proceed most smoothly and be most effective if it is part of a broader HR strategy designed to combat age barriers, a point I return to below.

Towards an integrated age management strategy

This research has uncovered a range of successful and transferable initiatives that may be seen as a starting point for a new workplace policy towards age and employment in Europe. But there are important caveats too, such as the danger of focussing policy and practice exclusively on older workers because this may stigmatise them. In order to maintain a balanced labour market policy and avoid intergenerational conflict it is important not to excessively target initiatives on older workers. It has to be recognised also that some older workers do not want to return to work or stay in employment. The size of this group differs between countries depending on the significance of early exit policies and the relative generosity of social benefits (for example in France there is a dearth of older people wanting to resume work). Also, equally importantly, there are the dangers of a policy which forces older people to stay in employment, either directly through raising pension ages or indirectly through stigmatising early exit. These could put undue pressure on ageing employees, particularly those suffering from ill-health.

This research has shown also that good practice in combating age barriers can take a wide variety of different forms. Indeed the examples we collected reflect a continuum of good practice stretching from very limited and narrowly focused measures (such as the furniture company) to more comprehensive ones (such as DSM, Hounslow, St Ivel). This means that it is possible for organisations to develop more comprehensive strategies and to build on even minimalist examples of good practice. In other words we should regard good practice in age management as a dynamic process that should, ideally, be moving along the continuum towards an integrated age management strategy. In doing so, largely reactive good practice aimed at problem solving would be replaced by a new holistic approach designed to prevent the occurrence of age discrimination, unemployment and age management problems.

What would this holistic approach entail? Rather than focusing only on the last part of an individual’s working life an integrated policy would encompass the whole career. Thus, instead of a series of one-off or ad hoc measures, a holistic HR strategy on age and employment would include both preventive measures (such as life-long education and training) and remedial ones (training for older workers lacking specific skills, for example in new technology). It could usefully be seen as part of a broad occupational health strategy.

Therefore although it is possible to isolate specific examples of age barriers being tackled effectively in recruitment and training and to recommend their widespread replication, an integrated approach to age management is likely to be the most effective way to both prevent and overcome all forms of age barriers in employment.

Conclusion: Recommendations for good practice

This final section highlights some of the key actions necessary to encourage the spread of good practice at all levels of the European labour markets, which are selected from the full list contained in Combating Age Barriers – A European Research Report. The recommendations are addressed to the different actors in employment policy and practice.

It is the responsibility of everyone involved in European labour markets to create the conditions in which good practice in the management of an ageing workforce can flourish. This includes European and national policy makers, employers and trade unions and older workers themselves.

Employers

Employers, public and private, should aim to create the conditions in which employees can manage their own careers and ageing. They have to recognise the implications of an ageing workforce. Many examples demonstrate that large, medium-size and small organisations can develop initiatives to overcome age discrimination. The research report made 14 recommendations to employers.

KEY ACTIONS: develop age awareness throughout the organisation and ensure that age is not used inappropriately in recruitment and training.

Ageing Workers

If a primary duty of employers is to create the conditions in which individuals can manage their own careers and ageing then ageing workers have a parallel duty to take advantage of that opportunity. The research made nine recommendations to ageing workers.

KEY ACTIONS: take advantage of training and lifelong learning opportunities and take stock regularly of their own training and career development requirements.

Trade Unions

Whether to defend the current interests of members (as workers) or to promote their future interests in retirement is sometimes portrayed as a dilemma facing trade unions. However, enlightened trade unions will not see it as such and will focus instead on the promotion of equal opportunities for all age groups and on ensuring that, on retirement, older workers have adequate pensions. The research made seven recommendations to trade unions.

KEY ACTIONS: union representatives should take part in age-awareness training as a matter of routine and include in collective agreements training measures which rectify the disadvantages experienced by older workers.

National Employer and Trade Union Organisations

There is an important role for national organisations of employers and trade unions in highlighting the relationship between age and employment and disseminating examples of good practice to their members through education and information campaigns.

KEY ACTION: disseminate examples of good practice to their members as part of promoting positive approaches/attitudes to age management.

National Governments

National governments occupy three crucial roles with regard to combating age barriers: they may directly finance or subsidise initiatives; regulate the labour market, or society in general, to oppose age discrimination; and/or provide encouragement to employers. Governments should lead by example as employers, contractors, legislators and rule makers. The research made 26 recommendations to national governments.

KEY ACTIONS:

  • Education: public education to counteract negative images of older workers and the promotion of lifelong learning.
  • Employment Policy: active labour market policies designed to enable older workers to remain in employment and the promotion of quality employment for this and other age groups.
  • Pensions and Social Security Policies: elimination of incentives to employers to make older workers redundant.
  • Inclusion of Older Workers: encourage employers to establish comprehensive action programmes on age and employment by publishing good practice guides and disseminating age awareness literature.

European Union

The European Commission has a role to play in this area by disseminating examples of good practice and encouraging the transfer of knowledge between the Member States. The research made 12 recommendations to the European Commission.

KEY ACTIONS: eliminate age barriers from the Commission’s own recruitment practices, ensure that the new European Social Fund makes older workers a priority group, ensure that the needs of older workers are adequately reflected in the Employment Guidelines and Equal Opportunities policies and introduce a new European Code of Good Practice in employment of older workers.

The research reported here purposely set out to seek examples of good practice, in the spirit of the 1995 Council Resolution on the Employment of Older Workers. I am not pretending that the examples quoted are representative nor that the majority of older workers across the EU do not continue to face age barriers. But, rather, our intention was to seek out examples of good practice so that they may be used to illustrate both the existence of such initiatives and the lessons that might be learnt from their implementation. Although it is only a minority of organisations that are taking action to combat age barriers, the fact that some are showing the way and that they include leading European commercial companies and major public authorities, indicate at least some awareness of the importance of this issue. Some indication of the potential to raise participation rates among older workers is shown in Table 3. The two projected columns show what is likely to be the case if present trends continue (a) and the proportion of older workers that would be active if the participation rates of 1970 could be achieved.

There is no doubt that the EU Member States have begun to address the age and employment paradox – the coexistence of workforce ageing and extensive early exit – and now it is time for the social partners to take action. Hence the focus of this research was on the practical steps necessary to achieve good practice. The social and economic policy context is currently favourable towards combating age barriers and, as this research has shown, there are good commercial as well as human resource management reasons for doing so. The two clear messages from this project are, first, that good practice in job recruitment and training benefits an organisation as a whole and not just older workers and, secondly, that failure to combat age barriers means the wasting of human resources, which is very short sighted, especially when faced with an ageing workforce.

Table 3. Older Workers (45+) as a Proportion of the Labour Force 

1970 1995 2030(a) 2030(b)
Austria 31.5 26.6 36.9 45.3
Belgium 31.4 25.5 31.8 43.3
Denmark 36.4 34.0 37.3 46.3
Finland 31.5 34.2 36.9 44.2
France 32.9 30.7 39.1 47.7
Germany 33.1 31.5 40.3 50.4
Greece 35.3 33.0 45.0 54.3
Ireland 39.0 28.4 42.2 49.9
Italy 30.5 29.5 43.0 50.6
Luxembourg 28.6 26.1 33.6 38.8
Netherlands 29.7 26.6 33.5 45.1
Portugal 33.0 31.7 44.0 55.4
Spain 32.6 27.2 44.6 54.1
Sweden 39.3 38.6 40.7 45.7
UK 37.9 33.8 38.7 46.1
EU15 33.5 30.5 39.1 47.8
OECD 32.9 30.6 40.5 48.2
US 27.7 25.0 28.9 27.9
Japan 21.9 33.1 34.5 31.1

Source: OECD.

References

Casey, B., Metcalf, H., Lakey, J. (1993) ‘Human Resource Strategies and the Third Age: Policies and Practices in the UK’ in P. Taylor, et al., Age and Employment, London, IPM.

Delsen, L. and Reday Mulvey, G. (1996) Gradual Retirement in the OECD Countries, London, Dartmouth Press.

Drury, E. (1993) (ed.) Age Discrimination Against Older Workers in the European Community, London, Eurolink Age.

Drury, E. (1995) Older Workers and Labour Market Programmes and Policies in the European Union, Dublin, European Foundation.

European Commission (1996) The Demographic Situation in the European Union, Luxembourg, Office for the Official Publications of the European Communities.

Griffiths, J. (1996) (ed.) Business and Social Exclusions – a Guide to Good Practice, London, British Telecom.

Walker, A. (1993) Age and Attitudes, Brussels, European Commission.

Walker, A. (1995) Investing in Ageing Workers – A Framework for Analysing Good Practice in Europe, Dublin, European Foundation.

Walker, A. (1997) Combating Age Barriers in Employment – A European Research Report, Dublin, European Foundation.

Walker, A. (1999) Combating Age Barriers in Employment – A Guide to Good Practice, Dublin, European Foundation.

Walker, A., Guillemard, A.M. and Alber, J. (1991) Social and Economic Policies and Older People, Brussels, European Commission.

Walker, A., Guillemard, A.M. and Alber, J. (1993) Older People in Europe: Social and Economic Policies, Brussels, European Commission.

Walker, A. and Taylor, P. (1998) Combating Age Barriers in Employment – A European Portfolio of Good Practice, Luxembourg, Office for the Official Publications of the European Communities.

APPENDIX PROFILE OF CASE STUDIES

Country/Name, Main Focus, Sector Classification, Size of Organisation

Belgium

  1. IBM Skill Team, Recruitment, Private Business Services, Medium
  2. Onze Lieve Vrouw Middelares Hospital, Recruitment, Private Health Care, Medium
  3. The Passantenhuis (day centre), Recruitment, Non-Profit Social Care, Small

France

  1. Furniture Company, Recruitment, Private Manufacturing, Large
  2. Insurance Company, Flexible employment, Public-Profit Financial Services, Large
  3. Chemicals Company, Flexible employment, Private Manufacturing, Large

Germany

  1. GFAW (Thuringia), Recruitment, Public Employment Agency, Small
  2. Stahlwerke Bremen, Training and Ergonomics , Private Steel Production, Large
  3. Wilkhahn GmbH & Co, Integrated, Private Furniture Manufacturing , Large

Greece

  1. TITAN Group, Training and Recruitment , Private Cement Manufacturing, Large
  2. DELTA Model Milk Industry, Training, Private Food Production & Distribution, Large
  3. SISEMA (Car Mechanics Association), Training, Non-profit Trade Association, Large

Italy

  1. L’Incontro Coop, Recruitment and Flexible employment, Non-profit Social care, Small
  2. IBM Sernet, Recruitment, Private Business Services, Small
  3. Province of Trento (Employment Agency), Recruitment, Public Administration, Large

Netherlands

  1. Fontijne Holland, Training, Private Machine Engineering, Medium
  2. Forum Wisselwerk (Job Exchange), Training Flexible Employment, Non-profit Business Services, Small
  3. DSM, Integrated, Private Chemical Production, Large

United Kingdom

  1. St Ivel, Integrated, Private Food Production & Distribution, Large
  2. Glaxo R&D, Integrated, Private Research and Development, Large
  3. POPE Recruitment Agency, Recruitment and Training, Non-Profit Employment Agency, Small
  4. London Borough of Hounslow , Integrated, Public administration, Large

Source: National Reports
Note: Small = under 100 employees Medium = 100-149 Large = 500 plus

Combating Age Barriers in Employment: Findings from a European Research Project