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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 11:18 GMT
Working over time
By Claire Heald
BBC News

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The state pension age is set to rise and life spans are increasing. How will the workplace change as people stay in paid employment longer, and what will we make of our older colleagues?

Times change. But it can be hard to imagine how the workplace of the future might look when today's is so familiar.

"Imagine if we were having this conversation in 1905. I would say to you 'there's this modern invention called the typewriter, there's the telephone, light bulbs'. And you'd be working at a roll-top desk, with ink and a quill, and one gaslight that flickers...' Change will happen in the same way that those innovations did, because they save money."

That is the prediction of Jeremy Myerson, design studies professor at the Royal College of Art. He has looked at the changes coming in the workplace as the number of older people in paid employment rises.

In his vision, out go today's bad acoustics, glaring lights and precarious adjustable seats. In will come a welcoming concierge and comfy chairs, a change many of today's workers may witness.

Pensions protester
Lower pensions, more work
With a shrinking workforce, increasing life expectancy and not enough in the pension pot, we will keep working. By 2050, people who retire at 60 can expect to live another 29 years. By 2020, one in two adults in the European Union will be 50-plus.

On 30 November, the Pensions Commission is expected to recommend that the government increases the basic state pension age from 65 to 67. That two-year nudge is perhaps for starters - the business sector has suggested a more radical 70.

Back for more

Anti-age discrimination laws are due next October, making it more likely the colleague at the next desk, in the van in front or behind the counter, will belong to a more senior generation.

Be to be nice to your retirees, as you might want to bring them back
Dr Philip Taylor
How will that change work? For Dr Philip Taylor, of Cambridge University's Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, it means employers must create "a convivial workplace with jobs that people find satisfying".

"A lot of people leave work because they are just tired of it, their careers have plateau, they are just worn out. In their 50s and 60s they're looking for different options - it's about giving people a reason to turn up for work."

That may sound like an HR fantasy, but Dr Taylor believes a shrinking, ageing, discerning workforce will force bosses to act.

"My advice to employers? Be to be nice to your retirees, as you might want to bring them back. It's difficult to predict what human resources you'll need."

And employers will have to help people into retirement gradually, through more flexible working. It is, he says, a far cry from today's ad-hoc retirement plans.

Grey power

But will the extra effort make for a happy and harmonious future workforce? Apparently not. Dr Taylor paints an ugly picture of simmering resentment as 40-something workers miss out on promotions, begrudge their elders' flexible hours and lose out on generous pension options of the past.

Woman in office, 1989
A typical office, circa 1989
A grim atmosphere, but Professor Myerson says the physical environment will be far more pleasant, and will accommodate worsening eyesight, hearing, movement and memory.

"The problem is office buildings. Most are an acoustic, physical and visual nightmare, designed for an overwhelmingly young workforce, lots of glass, steel and concrete.

"Instead, people could be greeted by a concierge, asked 'where would you like to work today?'. Need to write a report? A hi-tech comfy chair with no calls coming through and monitors to tell you to take a break. It's about making design more thoughtful so that we don't have to roll around on the floor plugging things in."

That sounds a million miles from today's working environment, but he insists change will come, just as it has always done, because the economy's success depends on those who can afford to choose where they work.

Hard graft

The predictions may sound exclusive to white-collar offices. But at the brewers Adnams, HR manager Michael Ladd has plans for the firm's 40 draymen, who for 40 years deliver tonnes of beer to pub cellars, five days a week.

"We knew we had a bit of a time bomb ticking," he says. "Legislation might set it off but we felt we ought to start looking at it."

Researchers asked the company's older workers about their career aspirations in the next 15 to 20 years - none were keen to simply wind down.

"Almost everybody they spoke to over 45 has some plan. Even if it's written on the back of a cigarette packet, people are thinking about it."

And if the workers are thinking about it, it pays for the company - be it a factory, an office, a hospital - to plan how best to tap employees' potential in the years to come. For an ageing work force is a certainty.


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