Policy Papers

The work-life balance in an ageing society

Pat Thane |

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Executive Summary

  • This paper 'joins up' two urgent issues which are normally considered separately: the ageing of society and the need for 'work-life balance'.
  • It argues that the growing numbers of people living past the conventional retirement age need not impose as great a burden of costs as is widely believed.
  • It proposes that a more flexible approach to retirement could minimize the cost-burden of older people. And, if combined with more flexible work-patterns and more effective life-long learning, could maximize use of skills: enabling parents of young children to reduce their working hours and achieve more balanced lives; and increasing the input into the economy of the growing numbers of highly-trained women.

This policy-paper brings together two important contemporary issues which are normally considered in isolation: the ageing of the population and the need to achieve what is now called 'work-life balance', or how to have a sane relationship between paid work and the rest of your life. It is argued that 'joined -up' thinking about these two issues can help us reach solutions about what are seen as problems in both areas. First, let us look at them one by one:

The ageing society

Populations world-wide are growing older. This is far advanced in most developed countries and is projected to advance further and faster in many less developed ones, where low fertility and ageing populations are replacing high fertility and youthful populations. A common response is pessimism- a curious reaction to what is in fact the outcome of the great success of campaigns to reduce mortality and control births, but widespread nonetheless. Much of the alarm is rooted in pessimistic assumptions without much evidence behind them. So what do we know and what do we not know about the probable effects of the ageing of Britain ?

Certain facts are clear. The proportion of people over 60/65 (the female/male pensionable ages) in the UK rose from about 5 % in 1900 to 18 % in 1984. Then it stabilized and should not rise again before c. 2020. Even then it could be offset by a rise in the birth-rate, or by an influx of younger migrants and there are recent signs that the government is recognizing the need for the latter, which can be engineered, whereas European history over the past sixty years strongly suggests that more births cannot . But the proportion of the very old, aged 80 and above, continued to increase steadily, from 11% of over 60s in 1971 to about 20% at present. Most of these very old people are female, though there are signs of a narrowing of the gender gap in life expectancy. Older women tend to be poorer than older men. Older people are increasingly likely to live alone: 13% in 1951, 36% in 1990.

These ascertainable facts are not always clearly distinguished from speculative deductions from the evidence. It is, for example, widely believed that the growing numbers of older people, especially those living alone (and, it is too readily assumed, isolated from their families) must impose increasing costs on working taxpayers, who, it is also assumed, will shrink in number, thus increasing the per capita costs. But old people are not the only non-workers. While their numbers have been rising, the number of under 16s has been falling, so that the total 'dependency ratio' (normally defined as the numbers of people in what are conventionally regarded as the non-working age groups, 0-16 and 60/65 +, in relation to numbers in the age group assumed to be in paid work) has been stable since the 1970s. Young people incur large public costs, especially for education and also private costs that are considerably greater than those imposed by older people. All children require total support from someone for a substantial period of their lives. Few old people do so and very few indeed for a period equivalent to the normal length of child dependency. Public expenditure on personal social services for children and for older people was comparable throughout the 1980s and 90s; in 1994-5 it was less than that on younger physically disabled or mentally ill people. Government expenditure on older people fell in the 1980s though their numbers remained stable.

We need also to look at the other side of the 'dependent': worker ratio. The proportion of workers is not static and is not fixed by age alone. The proportion has grown as more women have entered the workforce and continues to grow. The numbers of women in employment in the UK reached an unprecedented level in Spring 2000 at 12.5m. The number had risen by 843,000 since 1990. But the size of the workforce among those aged 16-60/65 is less than optimal due to: 1) the difficulty of many women who wish to work, still, in finding satisfactory paid employment which makes full use of their skills; 2) to unemployment; 3) to the trend to early retirement since the 1980s: about 1 man in 3 aged between 50 and 65 is not now in work, though this trend appears to be reversing slowly. Also migrants from other countries can boost the size of the younger work-force.

Many of the costs of supporting older people already fall on the private rather than the public purse. Only a minority of old people who live alone are isolated. Most have a great deal of support from family and friends and give much in return, financially and in the form of services. Most older people choose to live independently for as long as they are able. Those without close relatives make greater use of public services than those with, which suggests the importance of family support for those who have families. It is often suggested that the increased numbers of middle aged women in the paid workforce can provide less care for ageing parents than their home-bound predecessors. There is little sign of this. Furthermore, the age of onset of real dependency is rising, and so in consequence is that of the 'children' of dependent old people. Hence, increasingly, care of the minority of the 'oldest old' who need care, the truly dependent, is performed by the younger old in their 60s and 70s who are no longer in the workforce. It was estimated that the cost of all forms of voluntary care in 1994/5 if carried out by paid social services would be £35b, compared with the total cost of government personal social services of £6.8b.

The greatest public cost incurred by older people is attributable to pensions. Any future growth in pensions costs will not be driven automatically by the numbers of old people, any more than it has been in the recent past, but by political decisions. In the 1990s the value of the UK state pension fell to an exceptionally low level by international standards. In 1998 the government actuary was able to state that the 'costs of running the pension system into the future are very, very manageable' [ Financial Times, Sept. 18 1998]. The present government aims to keep the cost of state pensions low, shifting the costs to private savings. It remains to be seen whether one visible outcome of increased pensioner numbers- their political mobilization- will succeed in changing this.

The future health costs of an ageing population are not easy to estimate. Older people are remaining healthier to later ages. Younger people are growing up fitter, with a greater sense of personal responsibility for their health. As they age they may, in consequence, require less medical care. Of course, we have no way of predicting the possible negative effects of environmental pollution and other hazards on future life expectancy, but the current, well-established, trajectory is one of improvement. In the 1980s and 90s most people dying at age 80 or above did not experience a prolonged period of ill-health. Most had some problems, few were forced into dependency by them. In fact, we know too little about the actual and potential health of most older people because there has been remarkably little medical research on this unglamorous section of the population. Older people have been excluded from clinical trials for cancer therapy, coronary by-pass surgery, therapies for hypertension and thrombosis - the conditions most likely to afflict them.

Whatever their physical condition, it is too readily assumed that all of those past retirement age are dependent burdens on the economy. Yet increasing numbers of retired people are physically fit and have growing power as consumers and investors. In 1975 12m people had private or occupational pensions in addition to their state pensions; in 1995 30m. House ownership has grown dramatically and in consequence increasing numbers of people enter old age in possession of a considerable capital asset. Admittedly, longer lives mean a longer period over which assets must be spread and, although some of the richest members of society are above the official pensionable age, so are many of the poorest . Inequalities among the aged are greater than between the aged and other age groups. In income as in health, older age groups contain the best and the worst off, and in both cases the oldest women fare worst.

Nevertheless, rich and poor old people provide a wide variety of inputs into the economy, paid and unpaid. There are no estimates of the numbers who continue to apply their skills, as accountants, carpenters, teachers, secretaries or whatever , on a paid or unpaid part-time basis. Large numbers perform voluntary service. Most older people are women who continue long past the conventional retirement ages to perform unpaid but essential domestic tasks for themselves and others, some younger, some older, some the same age. Increasing family break-up is enlarging the role of grandparents in bringing up grandchildren.

And older people have unused potential as paid workers. The conventional retirement age was fixed early in the 20th century when fewer people remained fit to later ages. The evidence is overwhelming that old people can continue to work effectively at their accustomed or preferred occupation even when this is physically heavy or makes significant intellectual demands. At many tasks workers in their 60s and 70s can out-perform those in their 20s, though not those at their peak in their 30s and 40s . Losses in speed and agility are compensated by greater experience, concentration and motivation. Mental and physical deterioration of course occurs with age, but its speed and effects are popularly exaggerated. Practice maintains such skills as memory, flexibility and decision -making. Most workers are under-stretched for much of their working lives and have spare capacity as well as experience on which to draw at later ages. Older people may take longer to re-train for new tasks than younger, but not to a degree that makes re-training wasteful. Mental functioning and range of capabilities at any age is related to expectation and habit as well as to physical condition. With practice older people can improve performance at mental and physical activities to the levels of much younger people. Older workers take less time off work and need less supervision than younger people. They have levels of motivation and commitment and often better communication and personal skills than many younger people. And the growing numbers of older clients and consumers prefer to deal with them [ ESRC 2000; Employers Forum on Age, 1999].

The common belief that technological change drives older people out of employment has never fitted easily with reality and fits especially ill the present situation in which change in some fields is so rapid that skills may become redundant at any age. Strictly in terms of work capacity and the likely return there is at least as much to be said for re-training a 50 year old as a 30 year old. Probably the greatest disability affecting older people is that their capacities are underestimated by employers and others, including older people themselves. This can change, just as assumptions about the capacities of women as workers have changed in the recent past. Retirement ages are being raised or abolished in a number of countries. It need not be compulsory for older people to remain in work. However, there is a case for greater flexibility in the age of retirement and in the process of retirement and there is evidence that both would be widely preferred by people reaching current retirement ages. The present abrupt shift from full-time work to full-time redundancy which occurs with retirment could be replaced by a more gradual transition. Certainly we need to shift out of the mode of thinking that assumes that somewhere in their 60s most people become dependent, incapable burdens. Rather we should seek ways to use their capacities positively. We should -and can - conceive of older people as a resource, not as a burden.

If greater flexibility is desirable at later ages, why not at younger ages also? Ageing is normally considered in relation to the working lives of younger people in terms either of the assumed increasing burden of costs imposed by older people or of the prospect that the caring responsibilities of workers (normally female) will increase as growing numbers of older people are added to their existing responsibilities for children. As suggested above, such an increase in the total burden of caring is in fact improbable . The issues around ageing and those around child-care can be 'joined up' more positively and constructively. How?

'Work-life balance'

While the talents and skills of many older people and many younger women are under-used, while those active in the workforce are under greater work pressure than before. The 'long hours culture', the '24/7 lifestyle', has come over the past three decades to dominate the lives especially of highly educated and skilled professional and managerial workers. Robert Putnam has concluded from his survey of the US evidence that since the 1960s :'there have been important shifts in the distribution of paid work, from men to women and from older to younger people' [Putnam, 2000, 190] . In consequence ' the groups who feel most harried are full-time workers (especially those with advanced education), women, people aged 25 to 54, and parents of younger children, especially single parents' [189] ; 'Dual-career families are more common and are spending more hours at work than they used to', an average of 14 more hours per week in 1998 than in 1969' [191].

This was quite unforeseen. One of the ironies of contemporary culture is that in the 1960s it was widely predicted-with some alarm- that new technology would soon so shorten working hours that the problem of the future would be excess leisure. If only. Instead, the problem for many workers now is too little time free from paid work. The reason for this cannot simply be shortage of skilled labour when so many skilled workers have simultaneously been pushed, often reluctantly, into early retirement and when so little effort is made to enable the growing numbers of highly, and expensively, trained women to make maximum use of their skills. Rather it has been an outcome of managerial decision-making.

My own research into the life histories of 700 female graduates of Cambridge between 1920s and 1990 -some of the most highly skilled, talented and motivated women in the country- shows that throughout this time women have regretted the under-use of their skills and motivation, following the birth of children, especially in the decades after their children enter full-time education . Opportunities have improved over the past 25 years, but not enough. There is every sign that when the opportunities exist for mothers to take paid work suited to their skills which is compatible with family needs, they seize them. The more highly educated a mother is, the more likely she is to be in paid work . In 1998 76% of mothers with children under 5 who had A level qualifications were active in the labour market, compared with 27% of those without such qualifications. The most highly skilled-graduates are more likely to be in full-time than part-time work. But they are not always in work best suited to their skills, opting rather for work compatible with family needs; or they are in work suited to their skills but feel that it is not organized in a manner best-suited to the needs of family life.

This is an economic as well as a social and human problem. There is a massive waste of expensively trained female skills and talents in an economy which for decades has been short of skilled workers at all levels. For example, an important reason for the serious current shortage of hospital doctors is that the conventionally long hospital working hours are incompatible with good parenthood, hence female, and increasingly young male, doctors are moving out of medicine into other careers. This is especially unfortunate when 50% of those trained in medicine are female. Employing more doctors to work fewer hours might increase salary costs in the health service, but to do so should be more cost-effective than training yet more doctors whose training will be under-used in future. Rather the government has chosen to bribe, with additional payments, older, mainly male, doctors to remain in the workforce until age 65. Similar wastage is evident in many other careers. And there is growing evidence that men as well as women would like to spend more time with their young families [Wirth, 2001, 114-5] working more flexible hours and/or in more flexible ways e.g. teleworking from home. Yet part-time working is least available in the most highly skilled occupations: in the UK one in four workers are part-time workers (mostly women), but less than one in seven professionals and one in ten managers. [Wirth, 113]. Part-time workers are perceived by senior management as less committed. There is now evidence that this is so, but it is a prophecy which can become self-fulfilling, since part-timers tend to be given less challenging work and responsibilities and this may diminish their commitment. Part-time work is regarded as an impediment to career advancement: part-time workers all too often experience loss of seniority, less likelihood of receiving training and depreciation of job skills.

The workforce is increasingly concentrated among those aged from the early twenties to the fifties, the age group most likely to be parents of dependent children. Among this group family life has become increasingly unstable: divorce rates are high and have been rising. Currently they are stable mainly because fewer long-term partnerships are now formal marriages. Fewer children live with both parents. Many of those who do so, see less of them due to the demands of work. Work pressures appear to be contributing to the instability of relationships.

Women face a new dilemma-or perhaps it is just a new version of an old one. Just at the point at which they seemed to be achieving equal opportunities with men in the labour market, and when many more of them are more highly educated than ever before, and more successful in the education system and after, the increased time demands in the workplace make it harder even than before to combine motherhood and paid work, especially at the higher professional and managerial levels. Parenthood still makes larger time and emotional demands upon mothers than upon fathers. The career ambitions and experiences of women have changed faster than male expectations of their parenting role. Young women now grow up expecting and experiencing equality in education and in the workforce. They face a real shock when they realize that this comes to an end with motherhood. They are then presented with a choice of falling behind men of equal or lesser ability if they suspend their careers for some years, or work part-time; of seeing too little of their children; or of remaining childless. Increasing numbers of women claim to be making the latter choice, or are delaying childbirth until, sadly, it is too late for them to conceive. This is part of the explanation of the falling birth-rate. The inflexibility of working practices discourages parents from combining parenthood with a slower pace of work while their children are growing, which, surveys increasingly suggest, many would trade for rapid employment progression if they believed that that progression could be resumed at a later date. The change in women's aspirations and training -which historically is as new and dramatic as the changes in the birth and death rates and, chronologically, parallels it precisely- has not been matched by changes in the workplace.

The neanderthal response to this situation would be to suggest that it is a waste of time to train women; we should return to the old male-dominated economy. This is not and cannot be a realistic option: men alone cannot provide all the skills and talent the economy requires and it would be perverse to close off the vast reserves of talent among women that is at last coming into use. It seems more reasonable to ask why most businesses cannot operate more flexibly and imaginatively. Why, for example, has the effect of new technology been to intensify working in conventional settings rather than to bring about greater flexibility in hours and places of work? A study published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has recently commented: 'The most effective and efficient employees and managers are often those who are confident of managing responsibilities in all spheres of their lives [ Wirth, 116]. Flexible employment practices have been well documented to be beneficial in terms of sickness absence, improved retention of staff, improved productivity and improved morale and commitment of workers. Employers who introduce measures to support working parents find them beneficial (or at least neutral) in cost-benefit terms. Lack of flexible working arrangements plays a major role in influencing a mother's decision to stay at home. Women under 35 are more likely to leave their current employment to achieve greater flexibility in work arrangements . About 50% of all parents say that a supportive employer is important in helping women to return to work; a similar proportion feel that working mothers do not receive this support from employers. [Women's Unit, Cabinet Office, 1998; Daycare Trust 2000; DTI 2,000; DFEE, 1999]. It is sometimes argued that flexible working is inequitable, leading to tension in the workplace because part-time working by some is believed to increase the load on full-time workers. But can do so only as a result of management decisions. It is not a law of nature and certainly not a necessary outcome of flexible working; indeed the evidence suggests that part-time workers work longer hours in relation to their contracts and salaries than full-timers.


The ageing society gives us an opportunity to think more flexibly about 'work-life balance' over the whole life-cycle: to reverse recent trends, by allowing women and men to work fewer hours when their children are dependent, leaving them time and energy to spare for their relationships with children and partners, shifting to longer hours later in life, if they wish ; and working until later in life than is now normal, not necessarily full-time to the end, re-training as necessary- transforming 'life-long learning' from slogan to reality. This re-thinking of the working life-cycle would retain in the economy skills which currently are being lost at two points in the life-cycle: those of mothers of young children and of prematurely retired older workers. It is not obvious that there would be a net loss in productivity, given the evidence that flexibility has promoted efficiency and morale. The time devoted to the long- hours work culture is not all used productively. Alternative approaches should, at least, be modelled and tested. The results of the recent reduction in working hours in France should be closely observed.

This is not a particularly utopian suggestion. The long hours worked in the career/early retirement culture are relatively new and it is difficult to see what has changed in the nature of work to make them necessary or desirable. The expectation of promotion to senior management positions at relatively young ages is recent and not necessarily eternal. If change is possible in one direction, why not in another? The barriers to change seem to lie in the conviction of many business managers that 24/7 commitment has become essential for effective working, that it is an indispensable expression of commitment and loyalty; that the best workers put work at the centre of their lives, above all else. It also arises from the continuing belief that younger workers are more productive and efficient than older ones. But these assumptions are based on no more than a rather lazy conservatism, with little evidence to support them; indeed much existing evidence goes the opposite way. The reversal of the trend to premature retirement of older workers which is currently under way owes much to the belated discovery that they can perform at least as well, even in high-powered jobs, as younger workers and that their additional experience and less pressured home-lives can even make them better. We need to ask whether the pressured work-rate of many younger people is efficient, given the evidence that tiredness and stress may not produce work or decision-making of optimal quality. Many organizations have discovered that they made a mistake in the 1980s when they retired experienced managers and put decision-making in the hands of inexperienced thirty-somethings.

The long working hours culture is not working, socially or economically. In an ageing society we have the opportunity to experiment with alternatives.

Further Reading

Cabinet Office, Women's Unit Women's Attitudes to Combining Paid Work and family Life, 1998.

Daycare Trust Working Mothers Survey, 2000.

Department of Education and Employment Research Brief . S. Bevan et. Al. Family-friendly Employment: the business case.

Department of Trade and Industry Work and Parents. Competitiveness and Choice. Research and Analysis. 2000.

Economic and Social Research Council Fit and Fifty? , 2000.

Employers' Forum on Age Typewriters or Team-working? A Report into Secretaries and Ageism. 1999.

Tom Kirkwood BBC Reith Lectures, 2001.

R.Putnam Bowling Alone, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000.

Pat Thane Old Age in English History. Past Experiences, Present Issues, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Linda Wirth Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling. Women in Management. ILO, Geneva, 2001.


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