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Helping a workforce age, not helping an ageing workforce: the importance of Work Ability for ageing

It was recently reported that increasing the employment rate for 55-59 year olds will boost the UK economy by £100bn per annum. PwC’s ‘Golden Age’ index, which examines how well countries are ‘harnessing the potential of their older workers’, ranked the UK ranked at 19th out of 21 countries, having fallen from 16th in 2003. This then begs the question: how can the labour market position of older workers be improved?


The recent Current and Future Contributions of Older Workers event organised by the Foresight Future of Ageing project raised a lot of interesting questions about the nature of work and ageing, and how best to support employees as they grow older. Perhaps the title was a bit of a red herring, as the discussion shifted to focus on ‘helping a workforce age, not helping an ageing workforce’, as Martin Hall from BMW noted. The work we do will have an impact on how we age, and if we’re to stay in employment longer, real thought and effort needs to be applied to working environments and conditions. Chronological age is increasingly no longer a good measure of functional ability; biological age is more a marker of how well we’re ageing, and occupation and work conditions have a key mediating role.


It would seem these issues are now being acknowledged in policy. While the 2013 guidance produced by the DWP ‘Employing older workers- An employer’s guide to today’s multi-generational workforce’ made no reference to workplace conditions and their relationship with ageing, aside from a call for regular health and safety assessments and the consideration of ‘reasonable adjustment’ to working practice for those employees who are disabled, the more recent guidance from the DWP and Age Action Alliance (Employer Toolkit: Guidance for Managers of Older Workers) has embraced the concept of ‘workability’. Work Ability was developed in Finland and takes a preventative approach to working lives insofar as it considers the importance of the work context in how people age, and in turn how they are able to continue to work in later life. The Work Ability index, as developed by Tuomi et al., (1998) includes issues related to skills, work management and design; attitudes and motivation; health and ergonomics.


The recent DWP and Age Action Alliance guidance is a step in the right direction, but will it be enough? BMW presented an interesting example of ‘age friendly’ work practice in that they had considered not only what would help their older employees, but also what would ensure that the way the work was designed would not essentially prematurely age their younger employees. Rubber flooring to protect joints, on-site physiotherapists, altered shift patterns to reduce fatigue, hoists to rotate the cars to minimise skeletal problems all however cost money and require a significant restructuring of working conditions. Can SMEs make the same investment, especially as they may not see a return on it in terms of the improved occupational health of their younger employees for many years? It may be that these smaller businesses require greater incentives, or at least more concrete examples of the business case for improving Work Ability, to alter working practices which better consider how their workforce ages.



  • Tuomi, K., Ilmarinen, J., Jahkola, A., Katajarinne, L. and Tulkki, A. (1998), Work Ability Index, Helsinki: Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.


About the Author:

Dr Kate Hamblin is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Kate is currently working on a follow-on project examining self-employment for older workers as well as a further collaboration with CIRCLE on a piece of research commissioned by SENSE (the deaf-blind charity) to explore telecare use by individuals with dual-sensory impairment. She is also engaged in a John Fell Fund project exploring the outcomes of the Museum of Oxford’s reminiscence programme and a study examining the work and retirement aspirations of older self-employed people.

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