The European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations kicked off in Copenhagen earlier this month. The conference was organised by the Danish Ministry of Employment, Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration and Ministry for Health with support from the European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion).

What was the opening conference on the year of active ageing about, and what did you present there?

The conference was titled ‘Stay active’ and covered all aspects of active ageing.  Cedefop spoke on what makes for successful professional guidance for older workers, and how to think about training for an ageing workforce.

There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance about this issue. When we measured employer attitudes we found that half of them believe they’ll soon run into recruitment problems because of demographic developments, yet only 15% have given any thought to how to keep the skills of their present workers up to date.

How can we convince employers to do so?

The two things to underline here is that ageing workers are valuable in themselves, not just because you may not find younger workers in the future. And that spending a lot of money on training isn’t necessarily the best way to go about renewing your workers’ skills.

Employers need to focus on long-term productivity. If your workers are overspecialised and don’t develop new skills, you may have slightly higher short-term productivity but in the longer term you may end up with too many outdated skills. What you need to do is encourage on-the-job learning and workers with a wide variety of skills. This will improve the workplace overall.

What about the unemployed - what kind of training helps them the most?

Here too, the evidence suggests that just sending older people to training courses doesn’t work very well. Someone who’s already been employed for twenty years is a very different customer from a new entrant in the labour market. People need to be convinced of the value of a new skill; in some cases they need to be reassured that they are valued; they need to see how to rework their knowledge and experience into a new skills set. 

Take for instance, someone who’s lost their job and needs to reskill in a new sector. Well, sending them to a classroom may not be enough. You need to provide a general introduction to the sector, find out what particular skills that worker can bring to it, and offer training that takes those skills into account - and then ideally arrange for a work placement.

You seem to be saying that the key factor for the development of workplace and workers alike is an environment that values learning. 

There’s something really interesting that emerges from the figures. In fields that don’t change at a rapid pace, people may be lulled into concentrating on their own jobs and not following what’s going on in the sector in general – and that’s where they may run into some very unpleasant surprises. 

If you think about it, in a workplace that requires you to learn new things all the time, you will consider learning a natural part of professional life. So you experience change as a gradual and normal thing, and learn to follow developments in your field as a matter of course.  Such workers are more likely to work for longer (which has been proven to prevent cognitive deterioration) and to be happier and thus more productive in the workplace.

But for low-skilled people who are less likely to add skills on the job or get timely training, outdated skills are a serious risk.  And people who leave the job market whether because they are laid off or for family reasons, also run a significant risk.  Their skills have been found to depreciate twice as fast as for those who stay in their jobs. 

So in effect staying active for longer -  which most of us will have to do - means making sure your skills don’t become outdated. And on this, most of us can benefit from guidance and counselling.  Providing the necessary support for active ageing will be an increasingly important role for guidance in the years to come.  

Cedefop expert Jasper van Loo spoke at the Opening Conference for the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012, 'Stay active – what does it take?' held in Copenhagen on 18 and 19 January 2012.