Helen Kewell argues that a new era is dawning and our workplaces, society and economy will need to find new ways to value our older people
It is an incontrovertible fact that our population is ageing. Our life expectancy in most parts of the world is now one decade more than our parents’ generation and nearly two decades more than our grandparents’: many of us will now live well into our hundreds.1 With all this extra time, many of us will be choosing to, or having to, work for longer, and some of us may find ourselves ‘unretiring’ and returning to work. Others will want to find or return to work into their late 60s and 70s, but will struggle to find employment.2 As the UK retirement age is set to increase to 67 by 2028, falling in line with the trend of increasing life expectancy,3 the number of people still in work well into their 70s will increase.
This changing landscape raises questions for us at an individual, familial, organisational and societal level, particularly as the younger available workforce is in decline. Worryingly, there are predicted to be 300,000 fewer workers under the age of 30, and one million more workers over the age of 50, between 2018 and 2035 in the UK.2 While our culture may still prize youth with its rhetoric, I believe a change is coming, because our older population will become essential to our society and economy in a whole new way.
I’m a humanistic counsellor, specialising in working with older adults, and as a woman in her late 40s, I’m writing with an interest in what an ageing workforce will mean for us all, including the practitioners who support organisations with workplace wellbeing. I explore the ageing workforce through the lens of research, psychotherapeutic theory and clinical practice, which includes interviews with older clients and workers. I weave together three key themes, which emerge as important: choice, purpose and reflection, and encourage the reader to consider these themes in their own life and practice.
What happens as we age?
It’s always dangerous to make generalisations, but there are certain realities about being between 50 and 80 years of age, which will impact on our lives and work. Turning to the developmental theory, the second half of our lives is typically a time when we find ourselves reflecting on our life lived so far, of yearning for a sense of purpose, of experiencing an existential awakening to the reality of our own changing body and our mortality, and of finding and reimagining our identity within a world that prizes youth and excludes older people. We are navigating this rich and new landscape, perhaps over several years or decades, often while maintaining our job role and career.
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In parallel, emotionally, the punches stack up as the years pass and losses begin to multiply: our children leave home, elderly parents may be dying, we may even bear the responsibility for their care, we may confront our own failing health and we may face divorce. In Extra Time, writer Camilla Cavendish explains how living longer after retirement is driving ‘grey divorce’ rates up, with the over 65s seeing the fastest rise.4
Due to the pandemic, older workers are more likely to be at risk of losing their job, with 2.7 million workers aged 50 or older having been furloughed, with 400,000 people in this age group at risk of redundancy and statistically less likely to return to employment if they are.2 At this stage, we are likely to be planning for our latter years: writing a will, planning what will happen to our estate, transitioning into grandparenthood and celebrating milestone birthdays and anniversaries. Irvin Yalom, the existential therapist, calls these ‘awakening experiences’5 – life events that can create an awakening in us, moving us from the everyday into the ‘ontological’ – the awareness of our being, our aliveness and ultimately our death. Inevitably, they will impact on our roles at work, our careers, both practically and emotionally.
Awakening experiences in therapy
Bobby was in his 80s and we were meeting after the loss of his wife and the recent diagnosis of his adult son with cancer. Years of physical work had left Bobby with pain in his hands and wrists, meaning he retired earlier than planned. He felt his body had failed him and life had little left to offer. He felt reduced, saying, ‘I often think, you know, what’s the point of me?’
Turning to the developmental theory, the second half of our lives is typically a time when we find ourselves reflecting on our life lived so far
Bobby was a charming and engaging storyteller, and we used his willing narrative in our work, moving from reminiscing on the past, into reflection and meaning-making in the present, through paying close attention to the themes that emerged, his choice of language, his embodied sense of self, and of our own, intergenerational, relationship. Bobby began to accept his role, unwillingly at first, as the patriarch of the family in his wife’s absence, and, crucially, he began to find purpose in it, lending support to his family members. The counselling space then became a place to explore his autonomy, what choices could he make? His son was running his own carpentry business and Bobby realised that he could lend his experience there, working by advising and guiding, rather than physically labouring as he once did.
I offer Bobby’s story to illustrate how work and life intertwine in our emotional, internal landscape and how as counsellors we hold the space for this. The existential psychotherapist, Emmy van Deurzen, wrote perceptively in the foreword to my book, Living Well and Dying Well, ‘It is high time we turned our attention to the experiences of those who should be honoured, valued and feted for the experience they have to offer us… but before we can do this, we have to start paying them proper and careful attention.’6
Ageing and mental health
Depression and anxiety affect around eight million people over 55, often going unnoticed and untreated, as older people are less likely to complain about losses considered to be ‘normal’.7 Alarmingly, in 2019, the highest suicide rates in the UK were in those middle aged between 49 and 65 years.8 I think these statistics are important when we’re considering the needs of older people within the workforce, particularly as these workers may be less likely to open up about their mental health.
There are predicted to be 300,000 fewer workers under the age of 30, and one million more workers over the age of 50, between 2018–2035 in the UK2
Employers need to think about how to target health-related messages to reach their older workforce, such as: including more tailored education on mental health and ageing; creating regular opportunities for reflection; increasing access to EAP provision; and providing mentoring and colleague buddying schemes. Organisations such as Age UK and The Centre for Ageing Better, have helped to progress the support available for elderly mental health, but it will soon be vital for wider society and the economy to understand this, as we become ever more reliant on our older workforce.
However, getting older doesn’t mean that our mental health will always get worse. As practitioners, we must resist objectifying and victimising being ‘older’ by being aware of how and when stereotypes and assumptions could be informing our practice. Robust supervision can support us with this, and I urge those working with older clients to actively explore their own experience of ageing and dying, as part of this process. I try to reflect on this habitually. Recently, I have begun to feel uncomfortable about the fact that, at 46, I continue to dye my hair for fear (yes, fear!) of looking old.
Hence, I am in the process of growing out my grey. If I can’t be authentic and accepting of my changing body, what use am I to my clients?
Alarmingly, in 2019 the highest suicide rates in the UK were in those middle aged between 49 and 65 years.8 …these statistics are important when we’re considering the needs of older people within the workforce
Living life to the full
Ironically, what happens to us developmentally as we age, makes us much better equipped to deal with the challenges ageing brings us. In one groundbreaking longitudinal study on happiness, older cohorts were consistently the most content. In her TED Talk about this research, sociologist Laura Carstensen explains: ‘When we recognise that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters. We savour life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day to day.’9 Poor mental health and emotional distress are not a given as we age. I believe that this lengthening period of our lives can bring us choice, freedom and growth, and ultimately peace, in a way that other phases of our life don’t allow. This emerged repeatedly in my interviews with the over 50s, where people often report an ease with who they are and what matters to them.
Elders at work
Employers that focus on retaining their older workers will deepen the skills and experience held within the organisation, as well as offering the possibility of transferring those skills through leading and mentoring others. It’s what the organisational version of an elder culture could look like and it’s a stage of life that people often find rewarding. One woman told me: ‘Since turning 50, I’ve become aware that I’m growing into an elder… As a young woman, I often struggled with owning my sense of power and authority, but not now, and I’m not struggling with my ego either.’ While this shift won’t be comfortable for everyone, how we respond will be informed as much by our career experiences as it will by our internal landscape and relational experiences throughout life. Our task as practitioners is to hold the space that can help our clients reflect and explore those elements and move into eldership in a way that feels right for them.
Physical health and the workplace
While the research on mental health and ageing can be contradictory, the facts about what can happen to our bodies as we age are more certain; changes to strength, stature, balance, eyesight, hearing, energy and sleep, to name a few. Being older increases the risk of developing certain diseases and health conditions. One in 14 people over the age of 65 have dementia in the UK, and this is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decade as life expectancy increases.10
Due to the pandemic, older workers are more likely to be at risk of losing their job’2
In his beautiful book, Being Mortal, the physician Atul Gawande describes the process of our ageing bodies and brains as a domino effect and calls for proactive and creative approaches to support this.11 We start by being a little less active, which can mean our balance changes, then our muscle mass decreases, which can bring anxiety around doing things that once felt natural, which may lead us to do less and feel isolated. One way that we can support this is to work with our clients to reflect on their relationship to their changing bodies, and build autonomy to look for ways to work with the built environment around them to support their needs. This connection of biology and psychology is brilliantly explored in Carstensen’s TED Talk, where she implores us to consider a world where we didn’t have to bargain with physical health to gain wisdom and experience, but rather find a way to build both.9
Defying cultural norms
I am reminded that as practitioners we are always being subversive. Each time we ask a client, ‘Do you want it to be this way?’, or accept without judgment the elements of a client’s experience that our culture typically homogenises or shames, we are creating something new and disrupting the norm. This to me is the gift of a therapeutic encounter. Age discrimination, age shaming and ageing stereotypes are everywhere, from adverts for skin cream and hair dye, to surveys that segment us into ‘young’ and ‘old’. One study of supercentenarians identified that defying these norms is a strong predictor of healthy longevity, allowing us to focus simply on ageing as the passage of our bodies through time.13 It leaves us more choice in how to be, within the workplace or otherwise.
Our bodies and illness
Working with clients in later life, I have noticed how often the body is objectified and how this is a way of rejecting our changing bodies rather than being compassionate towards our embodied self. I began working with Joan after a relatively early stroke had paralysed her arm and reduced her mobility. This impacted on parts of her life that held value, such as gardening, walking with friends, knitting and driving to see family. A retired retail manager, she had moved her energy into local community volunteering once her children left home and was Chair of the local WI. I noticed how Joan would call her arm ‘it’ and ‘this’ and prod or grasp it with irritation when she did. I encouraged Joan to find compassion for her arm, to explore meaning within her experience of her stroke and to welcome improvements to her health when they occurred. Joan began slowly to reform a relationship with this part of her body that had let her down and reform confidence in her body. With the support of a physiotherapist, Joan began driving and gardening again. By supporting our clients to integrate pain, illness or any changes to their body with kindness, they can then start to negotiate how they need to adapt the world around them to accommodate their needs.
We also support clients in finding, accepting and then bringing their authentic selves to work. Jarem Sawatsky’s book, Dancing With Elephants, addresses this wonderfully: ‘We have success tips for leaders, but almost no “success tips” for the billions of us facing disease, dementia and aging.’13 Writing from his own experience of being diagnosed with Huntingdon’s disease and having to give up his job and adapt his life, he encourages us to dance with our elephants – the things we are avoiding or hiding from others.
Adapting work environments
Research into older workforces and productivity has highlighted personal security as one of the key factors affecting the output of the workforce.14 This involves our perception of physical and psychological safety as well as workload demands. Currently, our workplaces may not be environments adapted for older workers, designed instead with the young in mind; for example, stairs without banisters, lack of places to sit and rest, hard-to-access physical storage and fast-moving revolving doors. Such environments can leave people feeling isolated, under-valued and unhappy, without even realising the cause. Indeed, shielding experiences during the pandemic may mean that older workers feel reticent to return to the physical workplace at all.
Age discrimination, age shaming and ageing stereotypes are everywhere, from adverts for skin cream and hair dye, to surveys that segment us into “young” and “old”
One simple way of remedying this, is to assess the workplace through the lens of the older worker and make adaptations. An excellent example occurred at BMW, when the organisation created a production line specifically for older workers, mostly over the age of 50. Despite being a physically demanding job, BMW didn’t want to lose these highly skilled older workers, who were building high-quality cars for the company and for Rolls Royce. Creating the right conditions for their older workforce meant that the company’s productivity went up by 7%, proving that the skill and experience of older workers was vital to quality output.4
Politically and socially, we have a long way to go to be an age-inclusive society. The number of age discrimination complaints to employment tribunals rose by 74% last year, according to data from the Ministry of Justice, analysed by the over-50s website, Rest Less.15 Since the pandemic, those aged 55 to 65 face being ‘parked’ on furlough, while younger workers return to their jobs.16 As people approach retirement age, they are more likely to be asked to work part time, and women are three times more likely to be asked than men.16 The CIPD recently reported that six out of 10 women over the age of 50, the fastest growing part of the workforce, say that their age has a negative impact on their work, some to the extent that they are forced to leave.16 And for those in lower paid jobs or without further education, returning to work once you have retired or become unemployed is both harder and less likely.2 Organisations will need to navigate these intersectional issues within their diversity, inclusivity and wellbeing conversations, and it’s clear from my research that they need to go far further to create accessible workplaces where we can all thrive.
2.7 million workers aged 50 or older have been furloughed, with 400,000 people in this age group at risk of redundancy and statistically less likely to return to employment if they are2
In 2019, the highest suicide rates in the UK were in those middle aged between 49 and 65 years8
As practitioners, we can best help our clients by returning to the basics of our practice: creating a space to reflect on their experience of ageing, where they are accepted and celebrated for their uniqueness, where they can find purpose and direction and gain confidence to exercise choice and autonomy. Working upstream with our organisations, practitioners can help to inform workplace wellbeing conversations and initiatives to influence policy and create change. I believe that counselling is always a political act, a micro insurgence against a world within which people can become socially and culturally boxed in. Within this context, I experience the work that I do with older people as the most vibrant, rewarding work of all. Change is coming and I feel proud to be part of that change in some small way.
Helen Kewell is a humanistic counsellor in private practice specialising in working with older adults, and has a background in organisational development. She is Director at Muuto Consulting, a specialist consultancy in business transformation, and the author of Living Well and Dying Well: tales of counselling older people (www.pccs-books.co.uk). Helen sits on BACP’s Older People’s Expert Reference Group and writes and lectures regularly on ageing and mental health. Article courtesy of BACP.