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Introduction

Due to an ageing population and global economic competition, there is a societal need for people to extend their working lives while maintaining high work productivity. This article presents an overview of the labour participation, job performance, and job characteristics of older workers in the European Union. The way in which several factors, including health, working conditions, skills and knowledge, and social and financial factors influence sustainable employability and the early retirement of older workers is also examined. Finally, a number of policy initiatives and measures are presented.

Ageing in Europe

Europe’s population is becoming progressively older. The proportion of the population aged 55 and over rose from 25% in 1990 to 30% in 2010[1] and 38% in 2022[2]. The two main reasons of this ageing population are that Europeans are living longer than ever before, on average ten years longer than in 1960, and that fewer children are being born. This increases the average age of Europe's population. On 1 January 2022, the median age was 44.4 years. This means that half of the EU’s population was older than 44.4 years, while the other half was younger. Across the EU Member States the median age ranged between 38.3 years in Cyprus and 48 years in Italy[3]. Furthermore, it is expected that during the period from 2022 to 2100 the share of the population of working age will continue to decline, while older people will probably account for an increasing share of the total population: those aged 65 years or over will account for 31.3 % of the EU’s population by 2100, compared with 21.1 % in 20223.

The ageing of the population poses serious challenges for society. For example, it places strain on pension and social security systems, increases expenditure on health care and living arrangements for elderly people, and requires adjustments in the workplace for an ageing labour force[1].

Definition of older workers

There is no single accepted definition of the terms reference ‘older workers’ or the ‘older workforce’. However, at European and international level, a number of organisations use the age group of 55-64 years to define ‘older workers[4].

Labour participation of older people

One way to tackle the challenges of an ageing European population is encouraging people to work for longer. The share of people aged 55 years or more in the total number of persons employed in the EU-27 increased from 11.9 % to 20.2 % between 2004 and 2019 (see also figure 1)[5]

 

Figure 1 

 

Although employment rates for older workers (aged 55–64) have increased, these rates remain low relative to those for younger age groups. Fortunately, it is expected that there will be a considerable increase in employment rates for older persons across the EU-27 for the next 50 years. Older women (aged 55-64) in particular are expected to gain a more prominent role in the EU-27 labour market[6]. In 2019, employment rates for men and women aged 55-64 years were at 66.0 % for men and 52.6 % for women and between 2004 and 2019 there has been a significant increase in all of the EU Member States. In Slovakia and Austria, the employment rate for people aged 55-64 years more than doubled between 2004 and 2019. In 2019, employment rates among people aged 55-64 years were more than 70.0 % in Sweden, Germany, Estonia and Denmark, while at the other end of the range there were six EU Member States — Poland, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Greece and Luxembourg — where rates for this age group were less than 50.0 % [5].

Ageing and work

There are many stereotypes about older workers. For example, older workers are often expected to be less motivated and productive than younger workers[7]. The reality is quite different and much more complex. Some abilities increase with age, and other new abilities emerge. There are significant inter-individual differences due to, among others, genetic factors, lifestyle, and work-related influences. In other words, age on its own does not determine health and job performance. The process of ageing does, however, involve changes in physical, mental and motor skills that can affect performance.

Job performance

It is a fact that as we become older, physical capacities decrease and cognitive functioning changes. Examples of physical deterioration due to ageing are loss of muscular strength, loss of lung capacity, hearing and vision changes. Also, from the age of 50, workers need more time to recover from work[8][9]. Poor health and indicators of health problems, for example backache and sleeping difficulties, increase with age. Statistical data also show that older workers are more likely than younger workers to suffer from chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disorders and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) [9]. After the age of 60, however, there is a downward trend in health problems among working individuals. This is probably due to the “healthy worker effect"[10], i.e., individuals in poor health leave the labour market at a younger age than those in good health[11].

Physical health is also influenced by factors other than age, in particular lifestyle and working conditions[12]. There are thus large differences in health between individuals in the same age groups, and it can therefore be useful to use ‘functional age’ rather than ‘chronological age’ to indicate an individual's ability to work[13].

With regard to cognitive functioning, “fluid" intelligence (i.e. abilities which are not based on experience or education) tends to decline in older age. This implies that the ability to process complex information and to solve complex problems decreases[14]. However, these limitations in cognitive functioning and learning generally only become apparent from the age of 65-70 onward[15], and often have few consequences for functioning at work[14][16][17] [9]. Additionally, not all cognitive capabilities decrease when getting older. Experience, “crystalized" intelligence (knowledge), social and coping skills increase with age[14].

In general, an individual’s performance remains stable throughout their working career. Performance may decline due to changes in physical health and cognitive capabilities. But it appears that many older workers compensate for these losses through their more extensive work experience and knowledge[10],. Furthermore, research shows that in contrast to some stereotypical views of the abilities of older workers, they are an asset to organisations. Older workers are often more reliable than younger workers and often show a greater level of commitment. Furthermore, turnover and (short-term) absenteeism rates are often lower among older workers than younger workers, and they have a wider diversity of expertise, knowledge and skills[9].

Employability and development

Several studies show that employability and willingness to change, decline with age[18]. Older workers who are given opportunities to learn new skills and/or those who participate in training tend to stay longer with their employers. However, research shows that participation in on-the-job training is less common among older workers[11]. For instance, findings from the EWCS Telephone Survey 2021 (EWCTS 2021)[19] show that of all age groups, older workers are least likely to report ‘learning new things’ on the job. At the same time, the survey shows that differences between age groups remain small. 60% of the age group of 50+ report they often/always learn new things on the job compared to 65% in the -35 age group. For other indicators about training, there are even no significant differences between age groups. 45% of the age group of 50 and over state that they received a training paid for by the employer during the last year compared to 44% in the age group of under 35 [18]. This suggests that chronological age in itself may not be the most important factor in predicting work-related learning and employability[20]

Work satisfaction

Older and younger workers do not differ in the level of their work satisfaction [21], and generally value similar aspects of their work. Both older and younger workers find responsibility and meaningful work very important in a job. However, older workers seem to be less interested in aspects such as a high salary and pleasant colleagues than younger workers[22].

Job characteristics

Sectors

The share of older workers in total employment within a sector is highest in the sector of undifferentiated goods- and services- producing activities of private households for own use where 31.9% of the total labour force was found to be between 55 and 74 years old, closely activities of households as employers of domestic personnel (31.3%) and agriculture (30.1%)[21].

Self-employment

Older workers are more often self-employed than younger workers. The proportion of self-employed people increases with age, 13.3 % of the EU-27 workforce aged 25-54 years were self-employed in 2019 compared to 41.6 % of the workforce aged 65-74 years[21].

This is probably because self-employed people postpone retirement compared to other workers in their age group, either by choice or lack of other options. Also, for some older workers self-employment can offer the flexibility to stay in work, for example, professionals such as accountants might become consultants, or teachers become private tutors[21].

Part-time working

As age increases the proportion of persons working part time decreases, and then increases for those over 50. Almost 20% of those over 50 were employed on a part time basis in 2022[23]. This share is slightly higher than that of the whole working age population. In the age group of 65 years and over, 1 out of 2 are part-time workers. Older workers have different reasons for working fewer hours compared to the general working age population. In the age group 50-64, women are more likely to indicate that the main reason for working part-time is family or personal responsibilities. Not being able to find full-time work is a major reason for men to take up part-time employment, but only up till retirement time where other reasons become more important. For those 65 years and over, family and personal responsibilities and other reasons for working part- time become the most important[24]. Also, an increasing number of older people choose a phased retirement and change from working full-time to a part-time job before moving permanently into retirement. Some older people who do retire may subsequently take on a part-time job[21].

Working conditions

Older and younger age groups do not differ in terms of exposure to physical strain at work, including working in painful positions and a stressful work environment[18]. Although young workers are more likely to be involved in accidents at work than older workers, fatal and serious accidents do occur relatively more common often among older members of the workforce. In 2017, the EU-27 workforce aged 55-64 years accounted for 12.1 % of all accidents at work that resulted in between 4 and 6 days of incapacity, while this age group had a 21.3 % share of accidents at work that led to permanent incapacity, and a 26.4 % share of fatal accidents[21].

Older workers are generally less exposed to demanding working conditions. Compared to younger workers, older workers are less often involved in night work and shift work and are less often working at very high speed[25]. Furthermore, older workers report less social support from colleagues and managers than their younger counterparts. However, older workers report more decision latitude in their jobs, i.e., being able to change the order of tasks, work methods and the speed or rate of work, and being able to apply their own ideas, than do younger workers[23].

Sustainable employability 

Many workers leave the workforce well before the official retirement age. To better understand the retirement process, an insight into people’s willingness and ability to work until the official retirement age is crucial. Knowledge of the factors that predict actual retirement is also necessary in order to develop policies and measures to encourage people to work longer.

Research shows that poor working conditions have a negative impact on sustainable work outcomes for all employees, regardless of age. Employees who are exposed to physical risks and quantitative demands (working at high speed and to tight deadlines) are more likely to experience worse health and poorer work–life balance. They are also more likely to state that they will not be able to continue work until the age of 60. Intention to depart the workforce earlier is also significantly associated with poor-quality management and experiencing adverse social behaviour. The ability to continue working also varies between sectors and occupations: older workers with physically demanding jobs more often think they will not be able to do their current job when they are 60. Workers with a low skilled manual job respond more often no to the question "Do you think you will be able to do your current job or similar until you are 60 years old?" (37%) compared to workers with a high skilled clerical job (21%)[26].

The report Towards age-friendly work in Europe: a life-course perspective on work and ageing from EU Agencies[24] includes an overview (table 1) of those aspects that are associated with health and well-being outcomes and with either being able to work when 60 years old or leaving the labour market. For example, having a good balance between work and other activities in life can help workers to extend their working life, while workers exposed to high strain are more likely to end their career earlier. The concept of sustainable work, in the European employment context, is seen as enabling more people to join the labour market and enabling those people to stay in the labour market for longer [9].

Table 1: Factors associated with sustainable work and participating in the labour market

Pull effect (+)Push effect (-)

Tertiary level of education

Training

Being wall paid for the job

Career prospects

Feeling of work well done

Manager's support

Work-life balance

Poor health status

Low earnings/high earnings

High work intensity

Job strain

Ergonomic risks

Ambient risks

Job insecurity

Subjected to bullying and harassment

Discrimination

Source[24] 

The changes to workers as they age, the changes to health over the life course from exposure to hazards and the implications of these changes for performance and workplace safety and health can be seen as having the potential to form barriers to sustainable work, as they have the potential to keep (older) people out of the labour market or to prevent them from staying in work. When sustainable work is considered from an OSH viewpoint, it consists of two main elements, both of which are covered in the European legal framework on safety and health at work. These are:

  • ensuring that work does not damage health across the life course, by controlling risks to all workers (generic measures);
  • taking additional steps where necessary to ensure that any particularly sensitive groups (vulnerable workers) are protected (may relate to both age and disability/chronic health problems)[9].

Policy initiatives and OSH strategies

In seeking to increase the proportion of older people who remain in employment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends age-friendly policies in three broad areas[27]: 1) strengthening incentives for workers to build up longer careers and to continue working at an older age; 2) encouraging employers to retain and hire older workers; and 3) promoting the employability of workers throughout their working lives. With regard to the first area, many EU Member States have already taken action by raising statutory retirement ages and reducing early retirement schemes[6]. An EU-OSHA report provides an overview of policies, strategies and programmes on population and workforce ageing in the EU and Member States[28]

Sustainable work improves the employability of workers through their working lives and requires workplace age management strategies. Age management refers to the various dimensions by which human resources are managed within organisations and encompasses elements such as lifelong learning, career development and flexible working time practices as well as ergonomics, health promotion and workplace designHealth promotion programmes, as part of age management strategies are important[29]Including age-related aspects in the occupational safety and health (OSH) risk assessment process, can be used to help identify generic prevention measures, which would protect the physical and mental health of all workers along the life course, as well as measures to protect specific groups or individuals[9]. Examples of age specific measures which can improve the work ability of older workers include the training of supervisors in age management, the implementation of ergonomics to reduce the demands of work for all workers and making specific adjustments for groups of workers or individuals, flexible working arrangements, worksite exercise programmes and tailored training in new technology[9][29]. To support employers and workplace actors with managing an ageing workforce several tools have been developed. An example is the EU-OSHA multi-lingual e-guide on managing safety and health at work for an ageing workforce[30]. Other examples can be found in the EU-OSHA report Safer and healthier work at any age: Review of resources for workplaces[31]

It should be noted that older workers form a very diverse group, and not all older workers have similar needs or wishes with regard to their work. We therefore conclude that interventions to promote healthy and productive labour participation of older people should be tailored to the needs and wishes of older individuals. This can be achieved by active involvement of older workers in the selection and implementation of such interventions, and making idiosyncratic deals about the nature of the work.

Referenties

[1] Eurostat Newsrelease, Active ageing in the EU, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2012a.

[2] Eurostat. Database: Population on 1 January by age group and sex (demo_pjangroup) . Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/main/data/database

[3] Eurostat. Statistics explained: Population structure and ageing. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Population_structure_and_ageing

[4] EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. Safer and healthier work at any age. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/safer-and-healthier-work-any-age-final-overall-analysis-report

[6] Eurostat, Active ageing and solidarity between generations, A statistical portrait of the European Union 2012, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2012b.

[7] Warr, P., ‘Age and work behaviour: Physical attributes, cognitive abilities, knowledge, personality traits and motives’. In: Cooper, C.L., Robertson, I.T., (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology, Wiley, Chichester, 2001.

[8] Zwart, B., de., Ageing in physically demanding work, Dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 1997.

[9] EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. The ageing workforce: implications for occupational safety and health - A research review. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/ageing-workforce-implications-occupational-safety-and-health-research-review-0

[10] McMichael, A., Haynes, S., Tyroler, H., ‘Observations on the evaluation of occupational mortality data’, Journal of Occupational Medicine, Vol. 17, 1975, pp. 128-31.

[11] Eurofound, Working conditions of workers of different ages: European Working Conditions Survey 2015 Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2017.

[12] Ilmarinen, J., ‘The ageing workforce – challenges for occupational health’, Occupational Medicine, Vol. 56, Iss: 6, 2006, pp. 362-364. 

[13] Cremer, R., ‘Mental workability and an increasing lifespan’, In: Karwowski, W., (Ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors, Vol. 1, 2001, pp. 497-499.

[14] Kanfer, R., Ackerman, P.L., ‘Aging, adult development and work motivation’, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 29, No 3, 2004, pp. 440-458. 

[15] Nilsson, L.G., Sternäng, O., Rönnlund, M., Nyberg, L., ‘Challenging the notion of an early-onset of cognitive decline’, Neurobiology of Aging, Vol. 30, Iss: 4, 2009, pp. 521-524.

[16] Park, D.C., ‘Aging, cognition, and work’, Human-Performance, Vol. 7, No 3, 1994, pp. 181-205.

[17] Snel, J., Cremer, R., Work and aging: A European perspective, London, Francis & Taylor, 1994.

[18] Lange, De, A.H., Taris, T.W., Jansen, P.G.W., Smulders, P., Houtman, I.L.D., Kompier, M.A.J., ‘Age as a factor in the relation between work and mental health: results from the longitudinal TAS survey’, In: Houdmont, J., McIntyre, S. (Eds.), Occupational health psychology: European perspectives on research, education and practice, ISMAI Publications, Maia, Portugal, Vol. 1, 2006, pp. 21-45.

[19] Eurofound, European Working Conditions Telephone Survey 2021 dataset, Dublin, 2023. Available at: https://eurofound.link/ewcts2021data

[20] Raemdonck, I., Beausaert, S., Fröhlich, D., Kochoian, N., & Meurant, C. Aging workers’ learning and employability. Aging workers and the employee-employer relationship, 2015, pp. 163-184.

[21] Eurostat. Ageing Europe — Looking at the lives of older people in the EU — 2020 edition. Avaialble at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-statistical-books/-/ks-02-20-655

[22] Eurofound, Living longer, working better - Europe's coming of age, Factsheets Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2011.

[23] Eurostat. Data browser. Employment by sex, age, professional status and full-time/part-time (LFSA_EFTPT). Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/main/data/database

[24] EU-OSHA, Cedefop, Eurofound and EIGE. Joint report on Towards age-friendly work in Europe: a life-course perspective on work and ageing from EU Agencies, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2017.

[25] Eurofound, Sustainable work and the ageing workforce, A report based on the fifth European Working Conditions Survey, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2012.

[26] Policy recommendations for a longer working life. BSLF-SWL 2022. Available at: https://cbss.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/bslf-swl-policy-recommendations-longer-working-life_220829-1.pdf

[27] OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Council Recommendation on Ageing and Employment. Policy Brief on Ageing and Employment. October 2018. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/employment/ageingandemploymentpolicies.htm

[28] EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. Analysis report on EU and Member States policies, strategies and programmes on population and workforce ageing. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/analysis-report-eu-and-member-states-policies-strategies-and-programmes-population-and

[29] University of Warwick - Warwick Institute for Employment Research, Ageing and employment: identification of good practice to increase job opportunities and maintain older workers in employment, Final report, Economic Research and Consulting, Munich, 2006.

[30] EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. E-guide for all ages. Available at: https://eguides.osha.europa.eu

[31] EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. Safer and healthier work at any age: Review of resources for workplaces. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/safer-and-healthier-work-any-age-review-resources-workplaces

Meer om te lezen

EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. Safer and healthier work at any age. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/safer-and-healthier-work-any-age-final-overall-analysis-report

EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. The ageing workforce: implications for occupational safety and health - A research review. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/ageing-workforce-implications-occupational-safety-and-health-research-review-0

EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. E-guide for all ages. Available at: https://eguides.osha.europa.eu 

EU-OSHA – European Agency for safety and health at work. Safer and healthier work at any age: Review of resources for workplaces. Report, 2016. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/safer-and-healthier-work-any-age-review-resources-workplaces

Eurostat. Ageing Europe — Looking at the lives of older people in the EU — 2020 edition. Avaialble at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-statistical-books/-/ks-02-20-655

Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Ageing workforce. Available at: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/topic/ageing-workforce

OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Ageing and Employment Policies. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/employment/ageingandemploymentpolicies.htm

Contribuant
Klaus Kuhl

John Klein Hesselink

Ferenc Kudasz

Thomas Winski

Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium