The number of people over 65 in a job is set to pass one million. Why are some men and women so keen to keep on working?
The Queen is, at 86, Britain’s oldest ever monarch. From Sir Alex Ferguson managing Manchester United at 71, to Vince Cable, Business Secretary at 69, to Dame Judi Dench (above) competing for a Golden Globe at 78, older workers are increasingly visible.
Twice a week, Albert Billington heads to his local B&Q store for a shift greeting customers. After 23 years with the company, it comes as no surprise that he knows many of those passing through the doors at Longwell Green, Bristol. What may shock some, however, is that Albert is 89, and his decades with the company were all clocked up past the traditional retirement age.
“Some people like playing golf,” he says. “And some people dread the thought of carrying on working. But for other people it is their life – and, really, it’s always been my life.”
And it will be the life of an ever-increasing number of us. The age of early retirement is over, pensions minister Steve Webb declared this week, warning that the swelling ranks of Britons living into their late eighties “is never going to make the sums add up”.
Official figures now show that most men reach the age of 85, while the majority of women should see 89. And as the population ages, so does the workforce. On current trends, 2013 will be the year when the number of Britons who are over 65 and still in employment passes the one million mark for the first time.
It is no coincidence that our Queen is, at 86, Britain’s oldest ever monarch. From Sir Alex Ferguson managing Manchester United at 71, to Vince Cable, Business Secretary at 69, to Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith competing for Golden Globes at 78, older workers are increasingly visible in every sphere.
“It’s a quiet social revolution,” says Jim Hillage, director of research at the Institute for Employment Studies. “I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say, actually, wow. There has never been anything like this before.”
And it is happening at dizzying speed. The latest numbers show that one in four people between the age of 65 and 74 is still earning a wage. The report carried out by the insurance group Aviva revealed that 23 per cent of people in this age group are still economically active, compared with 18 per cent when they launched their first Real Retirement Report almost three years ago.
This pick-up in pace comes as squeezed household finances and the end, in October 2011, of the compulsory retirement age compound the longer-term forces at work.
“It’s down to longevity, financial pressures, people staying healthier for longer,” says Hillage. “And people want to work. It’s a push and a pull at the same time.”
Or, as Albert sees his situation, a “bit of both really”. For him, it was never an option to put his feet up when he was made redundant from the printing industry aged 64. With an adult son whose illness means he requires financial support, Albert picked up odd jobs, before a trip to B&Q – which has long been a keen employer of older workers – set him on his later-life career in 1990.
“It’s far better than being back in the armchair,” he says. “I like keeping busy. When I came to Bristol I didn’t know a soul; now I know everybody. It’s nice. I get on well with all my colleagues, particularly the youngsters. I suppose I have been very fortunate.”
Certainly, there is a personality that embraces the idea of working in later life. Reaching 65 before the default retirement age was lifted meant that Mario Rebellato had to leave the Civil Service for a less rigid employer. Now 71, his full-time job as a PA at London’s Pimlico Plumbers is part of the active life he chooses, along with morning runs, evening workouts and hospital volunteering.
“It’s in my blood, it’s in my genes,” says Mario. “I tend to do things to excess. I used to smoke, but I didn’t stop at 20 a day, I had to smoke four packs a day. I started running 30, 40 years ago, and now I don’t just do the odd jog, I run every day except Mondays.
“When I get stuck into something I end up enjoying it so much I just have to carry on doing it – and I think that goes for my job.”
Needless to say, he has no plans to retire. “No, full steam ahead. What would I do instead?”
Both Mario and Albert represent people taking advantage of what Ros Altmann, director-general of the over-50s group Saga, calls the “bonus years”.
“Most people are not old at 60, or even 70, any more,” she says. “And there are a lot of people who won’t be doing themselves any favours if they try to stop working at the traditional pension ages.”
For the abolition of 65 as the default retirement age signalled that not only can we work longer – but that many of us have to. The pensions system was never designed for people to anticipate 20 years of leisure after their working lives. As a result, the state pension age is due to increase to 67 by 2028, with the Chancellor planning to link future rises to improvements in life expectancy.
Women, in particular, are under growing pressure to stay in the workforce, given that their pension contributions have often been interrupted by years raising a family.
“I cannot survive on my state pension. I don’t know how people do it,” says Irene Wilson, 68. A widow living near Land’s End, she spends around 30 hours a week remotely marshalling a team of 200 sellers for Kleeneze, a direct sales company.
“There’s a flexibility about it. If one day I’m feeling particularly tired, I can ease off and don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to travel to work, because I work from home. I will probably carry on working until I physically can’t do it any more.”
But, having joined the company in 1999, she would not relish the prospect of job-hunting today. “As you get older, people look at you and think, ‘Gosh, they are incapable of doing anything.’”
If there is increasing political will to keep people working, the cultural pressures pushing in the other direction once you hit 65 remain strong – even when your skills are in demand.
“I’m not sure I want to advertise my age. Half of my colleagues are trying to retire and are younger than me,” says one 66-year-old who has a client-facing role in the electrical industry. “The reason I got the job is my long-term experience in the industry, and I want to work for another five years. I could perhaps continue at home, reduce the amount of public contact.
“You get to an age when your face doesn’t fit. I think people say, ‘Here comes Grandpa.’”
Most of those who stay at their workplace past the age of 65 have been there for 10 years or more, according to the Institute for Employment Studies, and the bulk (69 per cent) will end up working part-time. That means workplaces have to change in order to keep up with them, and we can expect to hear more about how companies must help staff plan their later working life, just as they’ve had to adapt to mothers staying in the workforce.
In Germany, BMW has led a charge among manufacturers to keep their precious skilled workers as long as possible, introducing special floors to soften painful hip movements, rotating, rather than repeating, tasks to focus attention, and piping in more daylight.
Time’s ticking clock cannot be stopped, of course. Ill health will take away the ability of some to work into their twilight years. “Not everybody will be able to,” concedes Altmann. “But at the moment people write themselves off because they think society writes them off.”
And for those doubters, Albert, shortly off to a shift, has these words: “I think that during the end part of your life, you should do what you enjoy. That in itself has kept me going. If a chap wants to carry on working, good luck to him. Good luck to me!”