Sincronía Fall 2011

Aging and Volunteer Work: Problems and Possibilities in England


Rebecca Steel and Jason L. Powell,

University of Central Lancashire, UK



This study intends to provide a concise synopsis of emerging issues centred on an aging population and its impact on employability within the context of the UK’s labour market. The hypothesis presented provides insight into the relationship between age and employability in the current paradigm of a fluctuating economic climate. Drawing upon the experiences of older volunteers engaged with voluntary, community and faith sector organisations and the communities they serve, the study will look into the factors surrounding ‘employment’ such as: its importance to people’s welfare, not only as a way to generate income but also in the sense of wellbeing, confidence and pride it presents to people fulfilling a role. The other key issue is to focus on what skills they have built.


At the nucleus of the argument presented are a number of defining factors. Firstly, the UK is experiencing an oversubscribed labour market with unemployment at an all-time high, recent policy and pension reforms have raised the ceiling on retirement giving older workers the opportunity to work longer, the UK is currently experiencing the highest rates of youth unemployment leading to inter-generational disparities within the economy and recession is sending shockwaves of stagnation to EU partners producing a knock on effect on the employment market on micro (UK) and macro (EU) levels (Powell, 2011).


Parallel to these concerns is the model of engagement, participation and representation of older workers (aged 55+) in light of political shifts and succession planning within the employment market. As older people remain in employment a reduction in opportunities for younger people to enter a competitive employment market becomes increasingly the norm; this situation poses many questions on what this means for the UK and whether this will lead to skills shortages and loss/lack of development in terms of the evolution of knowledge and market growth?


A New Law, New Hope?


There is also the constantly changing environment defined by changes in government and government policy as experienced in the impact of government changes to policy, pensions reform, Pensions Bill 2011.

With the Bill introducing key measures to:

-          Implement workplace pension reform measures from the Making Automatic Enrolment Work Review;

-          Bring forward the timetable for increasing the State Pension age to 66; and allow contributions to be taken towards the cost of providing personal pension benefits to current judicial pension’s scheme members. (UK Department for Work and Pensions Bill, 2011)


This paper aims to explore the potential changes to the operation of older volunteers working in the economy paired with national strategic change; encapsulated in within this paradox is an evident and increasing need for the preservation of skills and knowledge.


Themes for consideration throughout the study include:

  1. Maintaining the employability of an aging population
  2. The perceptions of aging volunteer workers as employees with any age discrimination?
  3. The decrease of employment opportunities
  4. Traditional routes to Education versus Vocational attainments
  5. The contribution of older volunteer workers
  6. Socio-political change and effect (retirement planning, employment flexibility, pensions and savings economic variables).


According to current predictions, between 1950 and 2050 the global 60+ population will increase by a factor of 10 and the 80+ population by a factor of 30 (Phillipson, 1998). Coupled with this, Bloom (2009) argues, these significant changes could generally be explained by long-term age dynamics (shifts in birth and death rates), declining fertility rates and crucially increased life expectancy (global life expectancy has risen by 20 years over the last half-century). Bloom also states these changes need not present a crisis for economies and public policy. In OECD countries, aging is a modest problem rather than an imminent economic threat. First, a demographic dividend’ means that aging would result in an increase in the working population as a proportion of the total population. While there will be some additional need to care for older people, this will be off-set by the lessened caring burden for children/young people among low-fertility, post-baby boomer generations.


The aging of populations is also balanced by processes resulting in a ‘compression of morbidity’ in that people are living longer, but spending fewer of their senior years experiencing ill health. The compression of morbidity means that demands for caring and health provision will be manageable, and healthy working lives may be extended. Overall, the proportion of the population able to work will increase.” (Bloom 2009: 9)

The UK demographic profile, like most other EU countries, is characterised by an aging population: current life expectancy for women is eighty-four years and for men eighty-one years. (ONS, 2010). From the statistics presented it is anticipated population aging will lead to a slowdown in labour force growth and within 20 to 30 years the labour force may even begin to contract. The timing and size of this fall and its impact on economic growth will depend crucially on future trends in the participation rates of older volunteer workers.

Riach and Loretto argue:

There remains a lack of focus on the relationships between paid and unpaid work and the self-management of older workers’ multifaceted identities as workers, non-workers, disabled individuals or older claimants.” (Riach and Loretto 103:2009)


This argument highlights exploring the complexity of social processes and discourses may provide an insight into the success of failure of initiatives to promote employability.


Dumay and Rooney say, “the aging workforce crisis appears not to have been as significant as anticipated because of the combination of improved processes and training of new employees, allowing for knowledge transfer, making some old knowledge redundant and creating new knowledge.” (Dumay and Rooney 174: 2011)


Dumay and Rooney emphasise where there are gaps in employability; they can only be filled by experience. Research shows where there are changing profiles of employment; there is a need for different skills and provides evidence for workers to upgrade their skills throughout their working lives. The UK labour market is affected by supply and demand. Evidence presented by D’Addio et al., shows that retirement behaviour responds to incentives embedded in the pension system. Financial incentives in both the tax and the pensions system play an important role in the decisions of older workers to remain in employment or to retire.

D’Addio et al., comment that considerable pension reform has undoubtedly strengthened incentives to continue working at an older age, further action is required on the demand side of the labour market to ensure older workers who wish to work longer can do so. (D’Addio et al. 625: 2011)

This argument illustrates the demand for skills changes in response to globalisation and that this correlation is not solely applicable to older workers as it is greatly affected by changes in work organisation, technology and consumption patterns in consumer markets. D’Addio et al., state:


“older workers are especially likely to experience a depreciation or devaluation of their human capital” (D’Addio et al. 631:2011).


It is in this area where governments have been most active. Pension ages have increased and will continue to rise in the future (Chomik and Whitehouse, 2010).

Within the importance of being employed there are juxtaposing views, from the perspective of the individual worker and from the perspective of the economy. 

In addition, ageism has been blamed as a reason for early exits out of jobs for older people (Bennington 2001; Ilmarinen 1997). It has been argued that older people are pushed out of the labour market as part of an ‘institutionalised ageism’, where the possibilities and qualities of older workers are neither used nor recognized by managers, supervisors and employers (Ilmarinen 1997, 2006; Townsend 2006).

In a speech delivered to employers in the UK’s labour market by current Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, following the pension reform of 2011 the continuation of older workers was referred to as a way of boosting the economy:


“We want to give them the confidence to be open about performance, about retirement with their employees. If you speak to many employers, they value older workers massively. I don't think there is some sort of in-built prejudice against older workers at all." (Clegg, 2011)


In relation to this speech, research identifies changes to working policies and the fact that the demographic distribution in Western countries is changing due to the population’s longer lifespan and the falling birth rates, this has led to a promotion of policies to encourage the participation of older workers in the European Union (Sigg and De-Luigi 2007).  The political agenda to prolong working lives is principally driven by economic arguments. However, for any future policies to lead to an intrinsic motivation to want to remain in work, the voices of older workers express the desire to combine work with non-work related commitments and identities.


Whilst the arguments highlight financial implications, alongside the influence of supply and demand in a globalised economy they don’t shed light on how the UK is going to maintain the employability of an aging population in an oversubscribed labour market. The arguments also offer conflicting opinions on whether aging workers should exit the labour market if financially able to retire or if they are a resource which can be tapped into for future generations.

Parallel to this, one of the key questions raised in this study is, are the UK’s labour markets placed to cope with the changes in attitudes, culture and structure of older workers?

Smith says that turbulence and unpredictability in 21st century labour markets arguably magnify the importance of maintaining employability. (Smith 279: 2010)

Drawing on Smith’s research she points to three mechanisms for enhancing employability: identity work training and networking, and working in unpaid and marginal paid positions. Few of these activities are counted as ‘work’ because they are mainly unpaid and often take place outside formal job structures.

Smith says that the environment in which employability is created is ever changing, “as new growth sectors generate employment opportunities and technological innovations generate demand for new skills. The dynamic combination of layoffs and job creation creates a condition of intense and continual labour market churning.” (Smith 63: 2010)


In the destabilised economies as described by Beck (2008), Giddens (1991), Sennett (1998) and others, people participating in the employment market must take it upon themselves to learn how opportunities arise, how to access them and invest time, energy and financial resources to take advantage of them. This active cultivation of social capital has arguably become essential for employment.


Kanter describes an individualistic concept of employability as, “employability security is based on a person’s accumulation of human and social capital – skills, reputation, and connections – which can be invested in new opportunities that arise inside and outside the employee’s current organisation. No matter what changes take place, the theory runs, workers who continually improve their skills and can make their abilities know throughout a network of firms are in a better position to find employment – with the current employer, with another one or with their own.” (Kanter 63: 1995)

Perceptions of job insecurity have been driven in part by the structural changes described but concomitantly by an employment culture of insecurity.

Smith argues, “in the new economy learning about growth sectors, about demands for new skills and how to acquire them, understanding how to access pathways to ‘good’ jobs, finding jobs and holding onto them all rely on unique types of interactional and identity work.” (Smith 63: 2011)

The point that Smith makes is that employability goes far deeper than generating an income for the individual and boosting the economy through active and booming labour markets. The role of employment links into a personal psychological contract against which individuals measure their values, self-worth and identity. To be connected to a ‘work culture’ for many people defines them and their social capital. A number of identities can be arranged around ‘work’, around the ‘family’, the ‘self’ and ‘other life domains’. Congruence between personal facets of identity and work-related ones manifests itself in the expressed levels of commitment to the organisation, the work group and the profession or occupation, expressed in the concept of multiple identities related to aspects of work and the organisation (Ashford and Mael, 1989).

Exploring the relationship between education and employability in UK labour markets the retention of an aging workforce involves career management, training and development as well as flexible, staged retirement (Phillipson and Smith, 2005), as a result of this the organisational human resource management (HRM) function often struggles to cope.

The concept of training often relates to promotion, maintaining competitiveness in the labour market and fostering organisational commitment, thus extending labour market participation among older workers. The concept of ‘life-long learning’ is an example of a personnel policy developed at organisational level, contrast this with policy at a government level and it’s clear these initiatives vary from pension reforms that limit early exit routes from the workforce through to legislation against age discrimination and public campaigns to combat negative stereotyping in the workplace.

The aspect of training and capacity-building an aging workforce is closely linked to the de-industrialisation of the UK’s economy and shift in labour markets.

As demographic change and economic challenges relating to the financing of health care and pension plans affect retirement policies, many older workers, dependent on their gender, health and income, feel they must continue in the labour market. Retirement related factors are variables as well as links to the sustainability of remaining in the labour market. These variables are not only dependent on older employees work performances, wellbeing and financial conditions but also their attitudes and expected adaption to retirement.

Alongside, socio-economic debates concerned with the issue of rising the age of retirement, retirement itself is subject to laws that in many cases establish a statutory period in which to retire.

The research presented in this study shows that over 50s tend to be the age group most vulnerable to unemployment, however, with the current socio-economic climate experiencing  record levels of youth unemployment, the tables may be about to turn.

Whilst extending people’s working life may be seen as a key element in curtailing the rising costs of public pensions, some consideration must be given to the role of an aging workforce in the broader collective of citizenship.

The main implications of these results are that employers and policy-makers should take into account preferences about retirement when developing strategies to encourage employees to postpone retirement.

Alongside the financial implications, the study has shown that the work environment and planning of aging workers social life during their retirement are important factors involved in the decision to stay longer on the work force and without consideration of these key areas the future of maintaining numbers of an aging workforce remains uncertain.




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Online resources

Sincronía Fall 2011