Research: Welcome back, Dad

As the economy recovers, middle-aged people are in demand again. Helen Hague reports on research from Sheffield University which shows how to use older workers as a vital resource
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The Independent Online
It's likely to be small comfort to the 42-year-old ex-middle manager and the 51-year-old technician who've been out of work for the past six months, but across Europe governments and employers are waking up to the fact that too many competent 40- and 50-somethings have been forced out of the jobs market.

The drive for downsizing, early retirement and other euphemisms for forced exit from the jobs market took hold in the early Nineties' recession. But while short-term fixes based on age discrimination may have helped businesses to survive, the so-called demographic time bomb has continued to tick away.

In the next 10 years, the number of 15-19-year-olds across the European Union will decline by more than 1 million, and there will be 9 million fewer 20-29-year-olds, 5.5 million more people aged 50-59 and 1 million more 60-64-year-olds. The tide against ageism has to turn, to ensure the economic health of member states.

A major pan-European research study carried out by Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy at Sheffield University - to be published next month - identifies ways in which governments and companies can wise up, by treating older workers as a vital resource rather than a problem.

He has devised and overseen research across seven member states on behalf of the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions - an outpost of the European Commission - on what will become an increasingly pressing concern: combating age barriers in employment.

The research has a highly practical bent, in identifying good practice which is transferable to companies and public sector bodies across the community. "The current situation is unsustainable," Professor Walker says. "Against the backdrop of the changing age profile of the labour market, companies need to look at ways of better using their human capital, and countries will have to find ways of keeping people attached to the labour market for longer. At the moment, a minority of employers are taking the lead. The idea is to spread good practice."

Professor Walker is building on research he carried out in the UK funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, topped up with further analysis of data funded by the Department of Education and Employment. He has expanded on this UK research for the European Foundation study - which was also carried out by contacting experts in the field in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands (a mix of northern and southern experience) to identify good practice in combating ageism. Case study vignettes were assembled by means of interviews and two or three examples in each country were developed as in-depth studies to chronicle how initiatives had arisen, and what their impact has been.

The consensus is emerging on the business case for retaining and recruiting older workers.

This can prevent skills shortages, maximise recruitment potential, respond to demographic change and promote a diverse workforce with a mix of youth and maturity - which is likely to yield the best results.

Professor Walker's experience in the field is percolating down through his department at Sheffield, informing both undergraduate course work and post-graduate studentship. The European Foundation project has also contributed significantly to Sheffield's research assessment exercise, a procedure that is increasingly important to all universities.

He says: "I do think change is afoot. It seems to me that we are at a unique juncture which is rare in the field of social policy. You've got a large number of older workers who've been either encouraged or coerced out of jobs, and employers who are gradually changing their minds and realising that it's not necessarily good policy to lose highly skilled workers. And then you've got employers' organisations and unions who are realising the need for change."

Valuing their skills and experience is, he argues, an idea whose time has come."It's striking, the increasing number of companies which are now saying they made a mistake in clearing out people simply on the basis of age, because they lost skilled workers. They put a lot of money into training people and then made them redundant on the basis of age. It is now looking really rather short-sighted," says Professor Walker.

A crucial part of the research - and one which should prove invaluable to employers - is a 260-page portfolio of good practice, to be published by the European Foundation alongside the main report.

"Employers can see that there is a series of relatively small steps they can take towards a progressive goal," says Professor Walker. A company can start out by banning age bars in advertisements, and ensuring that older workers are not neglected in training and development. The comprehensive age awareness strategy to change organisational culture can follow.

Just as ageism took root, the business case for dumping the concept rather than the worker needs to flourish to ensure economic competitiveness across member countries.

When Professor Walker carried out his earlier research he found that 50 per cent of employers favoured legislation to keep age discrimination in check - contrary to the view put forward by the Confederation of British Industry.

The Conservative Party is resolutely opposed to legislation to combat age discrimination. But if Labour gets elected, expect to see some appeal route for employees who feel they've been unfairly shaken out of the workforce because of their age. Unfortunately for those who found themselves cruelly downsized in middle age, the legislation is unlikely to be retrospective, but, as employers face shortages of skilled, trainable and available labour, today's jobless 40- and 50-somethings with a solid employment record could well find themselves being wooed back to work.

In a decade's time employers could even be fighting over them.