Jane Vass: Flexible working vital for older workforce

Britain is an ageing society in which people will increasingly need to work longer than ever as a result of the tough financial climate and a rising state pension age.

Yet far too many people aged 50 and over are locked out of the job market despite their skills and knowledge. This is often simply because they are unable to work in a way that enables them to balance their work and home responsibilities, which may include caring for a relative.

Something has to give if the UK is to truly unleash this wasted economic potential. That something is Britain’s overwhelmingly traditional and rigid approach to work. Britain’s businesses and employers must embrace flexible working in all its forms, from flexitime and working from home to allowing people to switch shifts or job-share if they are to make the most of the country’s growing army of older workers.

The law currently entitles parents with children under the age of 16, and those with caring responsibilities, to request flexible working arrangements. The government has publicly committed to extending this right to request to all employees, but has yet to announce any timeframe. Every worker should be able to do their job flexibly unless a business can justify otherwise.

Our report A means to many ends, published in September, showed that 38% of those in employment aged 50-plus worked flexibly in 2010, up from 30% in 2005. So the message is getting through, but slowly.

We also know that people in lower supervisory and routine jobs are less likely to be granted flexible working than those in management or professional roles. Carers are also less routinely able to work flexibly than staff returning from maternity leave.

Perhaps even more of a wake-up call is the devastating impact of being unable to work flexibly. Some 25% of carers under the age of 70 report that caring responsibilities affected their work and, of these, 39% ended up leaving employment altogether.

A more versatile workplace is the obvious way to keep these people in jobs and harness their talent, not to mention economic contribution. How organisations choose to implement flexible working, either informally or formally, will depend on a range of factors, including business size and set-up. What is in little doubt is that it is a way of work that no forward-thinking employer can afford to overlook.

Jane Vass is head of public policy at Age UK