Leading article: A fixed retirement age should be consigned to the past

Moves to boost workplace flexibility should start with older employees

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There is a host of objections that can, and doubtless will, be raised to the proposals that the Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes today. Its central pleas are for the default retirement age to be abolished and for the right to request flexible working to be extended to all. Those employed in heavy manual or dangerous jobs, and the trade unions that represent them, will argue that a default retirement age is not only fair, but an absolute necessity. They will treat the issue as one of social justice, citing the health risks to which they are exposed and the relatively shorter life expectancy they enjoy.

Employers, too, will fear extra costs. With many older workers saying they want to work beyond the state pensionable age, companies could face a choice between keeping on unproductive workers into old age or funding expensive lawsuits to justify their dismissal. Some will also argue, no doubt, that an extension of flexible working would cost more, because overall more people would be employed to do the same amount of work.

It could also be argued that more opportunities for older workers might entail a shrinking of chances for the young, especially at a time of relatively high unemployment. Not only are older workers already trained, but some retailers already seek out older workers, saying that their basic skills are higher and they relate better to customers. Encouraging older workers to stay on might allow employers to become lazy about recruitment and training.

While we have some sympathy for these arguments, especially the last, we believe the Equality Commission has got it right. In Britain, older people are a lamentably under-used resource. Very many say that, health permitting, they would like to work past the state pensionable age. What stops them is not just the law that makes it easy for employers to dispense with their services on the relevant birthday, but the prejudice among recruiters that makes it so difficult for anyone over 50 to get a job.

The key to effecting such change can be found in the Commission's call for all employees to have the right to request flexible working. Note that it says "the right to request", rather than the absolute right, as there will be some jobs that are simply not suited to the degree of flexibility an employee might like – but not nearly as many as employers probably believe.

The recommendations could, in fact, receive a more favourable hearing than they would have done even a couple of years ago. During the recession, there is evidence that companies and staff have cooperated to minimise the damage, with staff accepting less pay for shorter hours and companies becoming more amenable to requests for sabbaticals, flexible hours and the like. More companies also seem to be realising that greater flexibility could be a price worth paying, or indeed a benefit that more than pays for itself, in order to retain highly-trained, especially female, staff.

There are many reasons for supporting a new attitude to work that includes career-long flexibility, in recognition of the fact that people's aims and requirements change. As a start, though, flexibility could transform the lives of older workers, easing their transition into full retirement, while ensuring that their skills and experience are not wasted. New rules could suit future governments, too, as the scandalous inadequacy of many private sector pensions becomes evident. With the interests of older people, employers and government so demonstrably aligned, the Commission's proposals deserve to be given a fair wind.

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