The European Union reports increasing rates of participation in the labor force by people between the ages of 55 and 64. Given the advancing median age of the European population, this trend is welcome. It is not yet time to pop the champagne bottle, though, because among the 27 members of the European Union, the workforce participation rates of older people vary significantly (see Figure 1). In Sweden, for example, participation by those who are 55 to 64 years old is relatively high and trending up: rising from 67.3 percent in 1992 to 72.3 percent in 2011. In Belgium, participation by this age group is on an upswing, too, but the benchmarks are low: from 22.2 percent in 1992 to 38.7 percent in 2011.
Notwithstanding the progress of European countries generally in enabling aging workers to stay active in the labor force, some countries face serious challenges. These have repercussions for the European Union as a whole, compromising its economic prowess. As Figure 1 shows, 47.4 percent of the European Union population between the ages of 55 and 64 are working, but this means that 52.6 percent are not—a serious loss of human capital.
Fig 1: Percentages of people between the ages of 55 and 64 participating in the European workforce, from 1992 to 2011 (Eurostat, 2012)*.
The Dutch example
Finding sustainable ways to retain older people in the workforce is drawing increasing attention across Europe. My country—the Netherlands—has responded with changes in law and policy. For example, the official retirement age—now 65—will rise gradually to 66 by 2019. New financial incentives have been adopted, as well. For example, an employer who hires someone who is 50 or older receives a €7,000 government bonus. A major topic of political conversation centers on who is ultimately responsible for sustaining the capacity of older workers to stay in their jobs: the employer or the individual worker?
In research to be published in The Netherlands later this year (De Lange, Schalk, Van der Heijden, 2013), we discuss negative “push” factors that make it hard for aging workers to stay in their jobs. Figure 2 shows that the push factors operate on multiple levels: individual; job; organization; macroeconomic. One may therefore argue that responsibility for sustaining the capacity of older people to keep working belongs at all of these levels, and primarily with the individual worker, his or her employer, the organization, and the national government.
Sustaining an older workforce in a global economy requires crossing international borders of knowledge. The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College understands this need, and has invited international research fellows to connect with researchers in the United States to examine topics on aging in the workplace. For example, the Sloan Center and other partners have started collaborating with researchers from the Behavioural Science Institute of Radboud University Nijmegen, who have organized a Dutch knowledge platform on sustainable systems of support for aging workers (www.nkdi.nl). The platform connects government agencies, companies, universities, and unions for online exchanges of relevant information on best practices and evidence-based interventions.
The Web site (www.nkdi.nl) is in Dutch, but translation software is readily available in English. Later this year the site will be updated with links to material in English as well as Dutch. I invite you to visit and share your ideas on sustaining the older workforces on both sides of the Atlantic!
Figure 2: Negative “push” factors that make it hard for aging workers to stay in their jobs.
*The employment rate of older workers was calculated by dividing the number of employed people between the ages of 55 and 64 by the total population of the same age. The percentages were derived from the European Union Labour Force Survey (EU LFS), which covers the entire population living in private households. It excludes people living in collective households (boarding houses, halls, hospitals). The employed population consists of those who, during the reference week for an hour at least, did any paid work or who had jobs from which they were temporarily absent.
Annet de Lange, PhD
Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Head of Dutch Center of Sustainable Work Participation of Ageing Workers