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One third of UK workers fear they will be unfit for work by 60

November 24 2006 - A new report in the journal Hazards indicates that over one-third of UK workers believe they will be unable to do their current job by the time they are sixty. In the last six years the UK has slipped from first to sixth in the European league table in this respect. The report argues that employers should stop using bogus health and safety excuses to get rid of older staff or avoid recruiting from this age group. Instead they should make more effort to keep the ageing UK population in work and off benefits.

The report entitled "Going strong" shows that the great majority of employees have no significant health problems to prevent them working up to sixty-five or beyond if they wish. However, poor health is the most common reason why people over fifty leave work, with only half retiring early by choice.

The report highlights the 2005 European Working Conditions Survey that shows just 63.5 per cent of UK workers feel confident they will be able to do their existing job when aged sixty. This compares to Germany (73.6 per cent), the Netherlands (71.2 per cent), Sweden (69.7 per cent), Denmark (68.8 per cent) and Finland (65.2 per cent).

The Employers' Forum on Age study (2005) found that almost half the UK workforce would be happy to work until they were seventy, but only one in five thought they would be fit enough. As the population ages, the dependency ratio between workers and pensioners is increasing. By 2016 the number of people under fifty will have fallen by 2 per cent, while the number aged 50-69 will have increased by 17 per cent.

Older people in the UK are much more likely to be economically inactive due to a disability than in any other EU or OECD country. This is especially true for those over sixty. One study found that 40 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women left work sooner than anticipated, with employers instigating two-thirds of those early retirements.

The report challenges false stereotypes about older people and fitness for work. Physical ability is dependent on health and fitness across the whole lifecycle, psychometric and cognitive capabilities do not deteriorate until well after state pension age. People over fifty are positive about learning IT skills. Older workers tend to have fewer but longer spells of absence than younger colleagues.

The report argues that given the UK's demographic time bomb of a rapidly ageing workforce and planned increase in state pension age older workers should turn to newly-introduced protection against age discrimination to keep their jobs and resist being pushed onto benefits. It calls for age and disability legislation to be used in parallel to require employers to make reasonable adjustments, usually minor and inexpensive, to enable staff to stay in work as long as possible.

The report also recommends that older workers should have a legal right to request flexible working patterns as they approach retirement and that employers should develop age management strategies for over staff aged over forty-five, to minimize strains on health. This should include identifying and supporting training needs and implementing workplace exercise programmes.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said:

"Britain is sitting on a 'demographic time bomb'. If we are going to enable older people to stay in work and off benefits, employers are going to have to stop pushing them out on bogus health and safety grounds and start working to keep them employed. The new age laws should be a useful tool in ensuring older workers can continue to earn a quality living but also that the UK economy benefits from the energy and expertise of a valuable section of the workforce.'

Rory O'Neill, editor of Hazards added:

"We are living longer and we are staying healthier longer, so there is no rational reason why we shouldn't be able to survive Britain's workplaces for fifty years or more. But intense, stressful, poorly designed work will exact a cumulative toll, so employer-run and government-supported 'work ability' initiatives need to target workers in middle age, so that the workforce remains skilled up and not worn down."

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