The ageing of the workforce is one of the most worrying of Europe’s labour market trends. Throughout Europe, the younger cohort is shrinking while the share of older workers in the labour force is rising, leading to concerns about the sustainability of pension systems. Government plans to raise the age of retirement have become a controversial issue in many countries.
The spirited debate which characterised Cedefop’s recent workshop on guidance for ageing workers reflects the critical importance of this issue and the complexity of related questions that must be addressed. These range from identifying the correct research methods to tackling attitudes to ageing.
Indeed, the first obstacle is cultural. Evidence from across the EU shows that employers do not give their ageing workers enough opportunities to stay on at work. The data also point to significant differences between countries. In the UK, 60% of employers say that encouraging workers to work beyond 65 is a potential solution to future staff shortages. But only 12% of Dutch employers see this as a viable alternative.
Policy-makers have some difficult riddles to solve. Foremost among them is how to offer lifelong guidance and otherwise encourage people to stay on at work, without appearing to introduce punitive measures.
One such measure is the retirement age. In some cases it is obligatory, leading to an abrupt age divide in the workplace. Policy makers and social partners need to examine whether this is still the way to go, or whether greater career flexibility – such as partial retirement - can ensure a longer working life, higher social acceptance, and greater intergenerational cooperation.
Another challenge is to find the best form guidance should take, and the optimum division of responsibility. Should employers take the lead, or is it up to governments? And what is the role of the workers themselves? As workshop participants pointed out, policy-makers would do well to take interdisciplinary research into account in order to avoid pitfalls such as cultural stereotyping of older workers.
Policy measures may include:
- expanding counselling services that cater for ageing workers
- providing support for cross-sectoral cooperation in guidance provision
- encouraging closer social dialogue between employers and employees in this area
A related issue is how the guidance and counselling field itself can best face the rising demand for services for older workers. The counsellors’ own initial education and continuing professional development must take this demand into account. But at the moment guidance services are scattered throughout many different bodies and are shaped by different regulatory frameworks.
Policy makers can make a real difference by introducing standards that make guidance a more coherent profession. They can also support the development of tools enabling counsellors to complement their traditional role: instead of only dealing with young people, they must be able to take on more responsibilities for the baby boomer generation.
The old division of fixed ages for study/working life/retirement no longer accurately describes how people live. Whether working within a company or in a public guidance service, the counsellor must take a highly individualised approach, understanding people’s aspirations and identifying a context in which they can thrive.
Guidance professionals must be prepared to suggest several options: alternating work with learning spells, a complete job change, a switch to another employer or self-employment and entrepreneurship.
- To recognise skills that have been gained at work – i.e. experience - validation systems must be put in place. So far few countries have done so.
- Careful study of the data is needed to establish whether, and to what extent, training in itself helps people have longer careers.
2012 is the European year of active ageing. Given the importance of this issue for the economy and its repercussions on training, Cedefop plans to focus particularly on adult learning and ageing workers between 2012 and 2014.
The workshop, Supporting longer working lives: Guidance and counselling for ageing workers took place on September 30-October in Thessaloniki.
Next year, Cedefop will publish a compilation of the papers presented. Also in 2011, the Centre will launch a Europe-wide study on guidance for active age management.
Picture: Cedefop conference on guidance for ageing workers,
left to right: Margaret Malloch (Cass School of Education),
Jasper van Loo and Mika Launikari (Cedefop)