Employers and work-life balance
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Employers and Work-life Balance

Demographics and Work-Life Balance

Our average life expectancy is increasing faster than ever before in the UK. It is rising 2 extra years per decade and no ones knows when it will stop rising. We are only gradually absorbing the consequences of this for the various stages of life. Each stage is getting longer and more variable in its impact on individuals.

The education phase of life has been getting longer and average age of starting working life (which for many people may be a stop-start process over a number of years rather than a precise date) has risen 3-4 years.

The age of starting a family and taking out the first mortgage (for those who become owner occupiers) has risen into the 30s. The birth rate is growing fastest in the 35-40 age group. It is evident that paying off student debt and then taking on mortgage and family commitments at that stage will have major impact on work life balance through into the 50s and 60s.

Until recently the working life stage was shrinking at both ends. Since the mid 1990’s the 30 year trend towards earlier retirement has been reversed and average age of retirement is rising gently. It is still about 3 years below the pension age for men.

Meanwhile the greatest stretching has been in the retirement phase of life, increased over the last 50 years from an average of about 5 years to over 20 years.

Third Age Employment Network (TAEN) is committed to managing mid and later life changes constructively to increase individual wellbeing, motivation and satisfaction and to meet the needs of UK employers with the skills and experience of all ages of workers. We play a major role in policy on adult learning, career advice, the labour market, savings for retirement and health and work. We believe that all these issues are joined up and that active work life policies need to take them into account.

Work life balance is about choice. The great divide is between those sections of society that have choice and those who do not. Patterns of work, life long learning, leisure and retirement illustrate this. Those without choice tend not to have pension arrangements, continue in jobs because they have to, not because they want to, are more dependent on welfare and have poorer health. Those with choice tend to have occupational pensions, work because they want to in jobs on their terms and have better health and life expectancy. It is hugely important that we do not forget that work life balance is not just about those who are free to exercise choice.

Much of the focus has been on work life balance for parents of children. But the peak period of balancing inter-generational responsibilities with work is in the 50s when people are most likely to have caring responsibilities for both elderly parents and for growing families. That, plus the desire for change after several decades of working life is the main reason why there is such an appetitive for flexible and varied ways of organising work in middle age. Employers in retailing and financial services are now capitalising on this to create win-win employment patterns with those in their 50s and 60s.

The great prize of a more flexible approach to the transition from work to retirement is however the impact it could have on the shape of careers. If we all felt confident that the sky was the limit in a career launched at age 45 or 55 then maybe we could escape from the pressure cooker phase of 30-45 when everything – raising a family, climbing a career ladder and assuring a secure future – has to be achieved simultaneously. The current great barriers to extending working life and returning after 50 to a job of choice mean that we cannot assume this will be possible. Our aim is a labour market which gives enough flexibility for each of us to choose the shape of career that suits us best. Climbing a hierarchy and falling off the end should not be the only option.

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