Opportunities and barriers to active participation of older people in society

Europe’s society and workforce is ageing due to a combination of low birth rates and rising life expectancy. It is estimated that there will be only two people of working age (15-64) for every person aged over 65 in the European Union by the year 2060, compared to a ratio of four to one today. A peak in the number of retired people is expected to occur during the period 2015-35 when the ‘baby boom’ generation retires, leading to fears that retirees may become too heavy a burden on younger, working-age people, and increase pressure on public budgets and pension systems.

A key opportunity for tackling demographic ageing and preserving intergenerational solidarity exists in recognising the significant contribution that older people can make to society. However, data show that employment rates start dropping already between the ages of 55 and 59, and drop sharply after the age of 60 (Table 1).


Table 1 – Employment rate, life expectancy and retirement age

Source: ASPA European Policy Brief, January 20101.

The ASPA research project studied organisational and public policies on recruiting and retaining older workers, and the influences behind organisational behaviour. It identified good practices among businesses and voluntary organisations that stimulate high participation rates among older adults and improve the investment in knowledge and skills throughout people’s lives.

The research consortium consisted of countries with a range of different EU welfare state regimes - Sweden and Denmark (social-democratic), the United Kingdom (liberal), the Netherlands, Germany and France (continental/conservative), Poland (recently accessed post-communist EU Member State) and Italy (Mediterranean).

Employers’ attitudes towards older workers and extending working life

A survey of 5410 companies, employing ten people or more was used to investigate employers’ views of older and younger workers’ skills, and whether the current economic climate is likely to affect labour force participation of older workers. Respondents were company owners, HR directors and other senior staff members who represented the organisations’ views.

Survey respondents rated young workers poorly on the strengths identified for older workers, and vice versa. On the whole, older workers were viewed more positively regarding social skills, loyalty, reliability and accuracy, while younger workers were rated more highly regarding flexibility, creativity, willingness to learn and knowledge of new technology.

However, smaller firms viewed older workers as more creative and willing to learn than large firms, possibly because employers in small organisations know each worker individually and are better informed about an individual’s talents and abilities. There is also a greater need for smaller enterprises to invest in employee retention.

Up to 70% of employers, in all surveyed countries apart from Denmark, were found to prefer early retirement as a way of reducing staff levels in the current economic climate. At the same time, research also shows that although the retention of older workers has improved over time, it has not become any easier for them to be recruited. Also, workers aged 55-64 who lose their jobs remain unemployed much longer than a workforce average. As a result, once made redundant, this can effectively signal the end of their working career.

Policy makers should be aware that this tendency could jeopardize efforts to raise participation levels amongst older people. In order to achieve this goal and to meet targets set for older workers’ employment, governments need the active support of employers. Policy makers should therefore promote awareness among employers of the competencies of older workers.

To ensure that older workers can stay longer in the labour market and continue to be active participants in society, ASPA researchers also made a number of other recommendations. First, the more positive image of older workers held among small companies should be shared with larger companies in the same industry sector, and taken up as good practice in age management strategies.

Policy makers should adopt specific measures to support small and medium enterprises, which have fewer financial and personnel resources than larger ones, with measures to help them recruit, develop and retain older workers. In addition, health and safety procedures and working conditions, which are often overlooked, need to be further improved because this encourages and enables longer working life.

Older people as volunteers

Volunteering is an important part of active ageing in Europe and emphasis on this is likely to increase, with more ‘young retired’ volunteers expected to be available in the future. Case studies of 74 voluntary organisations found that while aware of the pros and cons of older volunteers, few managers implement formal age management or diversity initiatives. Where professional volunteer management strategies do exist, these can lead to practices that discourage older volunteers if they do not fit convenient profiles for recruitment and retention.

The pros of older volunteers are that they have more time, and offer continuity, life experience, authority and social skills. The cons include resistance to innovation, holding on to leadership roles for too long, displaying a lack of trust in the younger generation and having difficulty integrating newcomers. Barriers to volunteering among older people include their health, education levels, caring responsibilities for family members, including grandchildren, or a lack of knowledge about volunteering.

The project came up with a number of recommendations that could facilitate engagement of older people in volunteer activities. On a general level, voluntary organisations would benefit from greater professionalism in volunteer management for all ages, though care must be taken that this does not lead to practices that discourage older volunteers. Clear analysis of the costs and benefits of recruiting older volunteers needs to be made. As it is necessary to consider the motives and limitations of hiring/retaining an individual in paid employment, the same assessment should be made for voluntary work.

Initiatives that can expand opportunities for older volunteers include training, flexibility in deployment, involvement in decision making, and improved communication, though these must be tailored to the different country characteristics. Good practices include matching older and younger volunteers or older volunteers with paid staff. By encouraging different generations to collaborate, they can learn from each other

Also, there is a role for companies to play. They can develop employee volunteer programmes, which are rare in the EU compared with the US, to provide continuity between working life and volunteering in retirement. If people are involved earlier, they are more likely to volunteer later when they have more time. Similarly, support should be given to women family caregivers to encourage them to volunteer when care giving ends.

Given the contribution of older people to the voluntary sector and the satisfaction they gain from voluntary work, it might help to postpone definitive and complete retirement if larger numbers of older workers have the opportunity to work part-time. This would enable them to engage in voluntary work and maintain paid employed (e.g. for 20 hours per week) thus facilitating a smooth transition to retirement. Voluntary action in older age is an activity benefiting society and older people themselves. In order to promote such activities the EU announced 2011 as Year of Volunteering2 and 2012 as Year for Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity3


1 See: http://www.aspa-eu.com/FP7%20Policy%20Brief%202%20January%202010%20-%20concept.pdf

2 See: http://europa.eu/volunteering/en/home2

3 See: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?langId=en&catId=89&newsId=860

ASPA - Activating senior potential in ageing Europe (duration: 1/2/2008 – 31/1/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.1 “Demographic changes”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.aspa-eu.com

Contact: Prof. Dr. Joop Schippers, j.schippers@econ.uu.nl; J.J.Schippers@uu.nl