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A new age

Unum Provident head of external affairs, Peter Barnett, says tackling age discrimination and NHS policies are vital if the Government is to succeed with its plans to help people stay at work beyond state pension age.

As the population ages, so does our workforce. Added to this, the Government has plans from next year to extend the working age with a view to easing the pension crisis.

As the UK workforce becomes older, responsibility will fall more on employers to encourage healthy lifestyles as well as managing absence through sickness and rehabilitation more effectively.

There are 2.6 million individuals aged between 50 and state pension age (SPA). Only 53 per cent of women remain in employment by 59 and 42 per cent of men by 64. The most common reasons for leaving work before SPA are ill health and redundancy.

However, the Government aims to have an additional one million older people in work in the longer term by tackling barriers to continued unemployment for those over 50 and encouraging more people to work up to and beyond SPA.

Tackling age discrimination is seen as a crucial part of inc- orporating older people into the mainstream of community and public life as well as widening the pool of workers available to employers. The Government has already set out draft legislation which is scheduled to come into force on October 1, 2006.

This legislation will make unjustified age discrimination in recruitment, training promotion and dismissal unlawful for workers of all ages. It will also do away with compulsory retirement below 65 (except where this can be objectively justified) and provides for a national default retirement age of 65 which employers can choose to adopt. However, this default age is not compulsory and employees will be able to work beyond that age if they and their employer agree.

This shift towards a greater number of older people in the workforce and the introduction of legislation creates new issues for employers and adv- isers. Increasingly, business productivity will depend on employers supporting the recruitment, training and retention of older workers, including offering more flexible opportunities for work and retirement.

One in four people aged 50 to 69 has experienced age discrimination when working or looking for work despite the proven advantages of an age-diverse workforce.

Businesses which are positive about age report factors such as improved retention rates, higher staff morale, higher productivity, wider range of skills and experience as well as a better public image.

The Government is sending out information to 1.4 million employers on eliminating ageism, an issue which will become more important as the average age of employees increases. This also has an impact on the recruitment of older candidates who will make up a greater proportion of the available talent pool, not only because the population is ageing but also bec- ause of Government pressure to stay in work longer.

One initiative encouraging older people to re-enter the workforce is New Deal 50-plus, a voluntary programme by Jobcentre Plus for unemp- loyed or inactive people aged 50 and over. Since it was introduced in April 2000, the programme has supported aro- und 150,000 job starts among older people.

Another issue for employers is the current lack of NHS targets for return to work and rehabilitation. If we are to work longer, this will have to change. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence rec- ently considered whether patients should be formally denied NHS surgery or drugs if their lifestyle means that the treatment is likely to fail.

If a patient’s age reduces the chances of a treatment being beneficial, then this could be taken into account.

If this either delays or prevents a return to work for an employee, then there will be an effect on underwriting and claims’ methodologies. It is hoped that if patient age has an impact on treatment, then, as the average age of the work- ing population rises, NHS decisions about treatment at given ages will be given similar consideration. For employers and advisers , this could be a very important factor because if the concept of a compulsory retirement age becomes invalid, then people could remain in employment beyond 65.

If an employee remains at work, they could be covered by the policy and so both the incidence and duration of claims may increase, with the claimant being denied access to NHS treatment or therapy. Overall, an ageing population and an increase in retirement age means that, more than ever, employers will have to consider their role in the health of their employees.

It is vital that the Government, the NHS and employers consider the best way to promote healthier lifestyles so we remain fit in our older age.

The Government’s White Paper, Choosing Health, is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done.


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