The Management of Active Ageing: From the Increasing of the Retirement Age to the New Risks of Employment among the Middle Aged

1. Introduction. On the Variety of Old Ages and the Lopsided Vision of the Policies

This paper is intended to contribute to the current general reflections on active ageing and in particular to the aspect concerning employment.
It will be asserted here that the action developed on the social security policy front has to some extent entered into an established cycle while contrarily, employment policies still need serious attention, both to achieve the desired increase in employment rates and to avoid the creation of a different and perhaps more underhand marginalization of the (so considered) less gifted workforce in the transition from classic social protection (on the distorted use of which the conditions of the ‘over45’ phenomenon of the 80s were based) to more positive strategies. This position is based on the results of European and national actions taken in order to extend working life and increase employment among the middle aged.
In this perspective a more specific reference could be made to the need for greater attention on the part of observers of the process and the kind of effects caused by the combination of cognitive homogeneity, clearly recognizable as a result of coordinated activities and European programmes in the ‘public arena’ of individual member states (and of the respective lower levels of government) and persistent diversity expressed today as the long confirmatory wave of dependency path of Piersonian fame, in the styles and times of activating reforms, of national and regional models and operational systems for the labour market and welfare (for an analysis of national reforms of the labour market in Europe see AAVV, La Rivista delle Politiche Sociali, No. 2, 2007. For a more localized analysis of measures to cushion the effects of unemployment in Italy, see M. Marocco, ibid.).
Staying with the middle aged, in this transformation phase which should see the evolution of the ‘passive’ protection mechanisms actions (whether those of the work kind or the socio-welfare ones) toward those of ‘active’ protection, it has to be acknowledged that the capability to support the weakest part of the workforce requires attention. In clear terms: the subject needs to be considered from the point of view of risk. The ever more common (and correct) sense of the need for a lengthening of the working age and an increase in the employment of people of advanced years, if not supported by committed and efficient public, business and union practices, can give rise to a situation of severe social abandonment of these generation groups. Italy is offered as a country not exempt from this risk. Reflecting at this point on the Italian case, it is to be noted how the recent growth in employment recorded among those in the more advanced age classes came about mainly thanks to a consistent commitment on the part of the female contingent in temporary, part time occupations (which might suggest different employment-re-employment profiles: from new voluntary entrants to those forced by newly occurring individual or family economic necessity, to the re-employed in ‘second careers’, those only passing through, after retirement, from salaried work to temporary part time employment).
However, as a preliminary to all this there is the general point that the very notion of old age is open to a variety of meanings, depending on whether it is used in a demographic, biological, sociological or other context; on the changing times and ways in which it comes into play in the course of individual lives and how its way of manifesting itself reflects social groupings on the basis of the work carried out, on the level of training, professional adequacy, ‘social competences’, accessibility to the various areas of wellbeing, and so on. From here, if what has been said is true, the necessity that such a lengthening of one’s working life as well as the development of employment among the middle aged should move from the ground till now the favourite of welfare policies (overall reforms and specific restrictions on early retirement, linked — or not — to economic incentives to continue in work) to that of multi-policy and multi-level integrated initiatives aimed at the development of the mature workforce, both in terms of retention in employment and of new recruitment.
On the other hand there is substantial empirical evidence deriving from several countries, including Italy, which supports this point of view. It is enough to look at just two points as examples. Firstly duration of employment. Secondly a recent Eurostat item: the number of those employed between the ages of 55 and 64 varies by almost double according to the level of studies attained; on average among those of both sexes (the difference is greater for just women) overall employment among people in the above age group with a tertiary level of education amounts to 61.8%, while it is only 32.4% among individuals who have had less than higher secondary education (Eurostat, Statistics in focus. Population and Social Conditions, 17/2006). The other enlightening fact concerns employment rates by age: according to a recent EMCO report, the re-employment rate for an unemployed person over 50 is less, by over half, than that of the unemployed person between the ages of 25 and 49 (European Commission, Social Protection Committee (2007): Active Ageing. The Policies of EU Member States, Bunderministerium für Arbeit und Soziales, Bonn,).

2. Europe and the Middle Aged, an Ex Post Reflection

The principle objectives the European institutions have set themselves concerning employment among the older are known and they refer to those set out in the wider context of the Lisbon Strategy. The Stockholm (2001) and Barcellona (2002) Councils respectively set the objectives that by 2010 the employment rate for the over 55s should reach 50% of the total work force of that age group and, that by the same date, the average age for leaving work should increase by five years. Today, despite some movement toward meeting the objectives the average rate of European employment among the over 55s is 42.5% and the average for leaving work is 60.9 years.
The processes pointed up by the facts suggest various considerations. Concerning employment we are faced with a relatively substantially linear growth trend (partly contradicted by some detectable qualitative critical points, e.g. in the Italian case to which we will return later). In total the distance from the objective set at Stockholm has moved from the 13.1 percentage points of 2000 to the 7.5 percentage points of 2005 (see EMCO, op. cit.), and — as seen from the Eurostat results — the driving force role of the female sector, in which the employment growth rate in these years has been twice that of the male sector, is worthy of note.
Contrarily the lengthening of working life has seen a disjointed trend of growth and decline (in particular the decline in the EU15 came about in 2004), reaching an overall increment over the total period 2001/2006 of a single year. We will return later to the two trends, as an introduction to the more general considerations of the paper.
The reform action carried out by the member states of the Union occurred at different moments and with different levels of intensity, and can be summed up as follows: acknowledgement of the phenomenon and the introduction into the debate the subject of entrepreneurial recourse to early retirement: as a management tool for restructurings and occupational excesses (all the countries); the adoption of restrictive criteria for permissions for early individual retirements (all the countries); the launch of welfare reforms with, apart from some exceptions, the raising of the retirement age; the introduction of gradual retirement and the development of flexible systems concerning the age-retirement-work relationship, based also on incentives/penalties aimed at the lengthening of working life (above all the countries of continental Europe, but also Holland and the mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain); the promotion of work in advanced age through employment start up policies, i.e. measures tending to make the older workforce more employable, among which the development of continuous education systems, with special reference to workers who are advanced in years, and the improvement of working conditions with actions relating to both the working hours and the organization of the work environment (prevalently the Nordic countries). The so-called ‘carrot and stick’ method of influencing individual retirement choices is characteristic of continental and Mediterranean Europe, alongside measures for restricting early retirements. The real target of these measures appears to be the middle aged employee, whom businesses consider useful and able to give the desired professional service, and not the workers considered to be surplus. The push toward the greater employment and lengthening of the working life of the elderly sought after in the different countries working on a varied spectrum of tools created more or less ad hoc, has, however, benefited from a fairly wide palette and, in the countries of Northern Europe for example, alongside restrictions on access to early retirement through disability integrated measures have been launched ‘with immediate effect’, for the improvement of the working environment and conditions (which in the wake of the traditional culture of health and wellbeing at work bring about, for example, the creation of the so called ‘flex and soft jobs’ for middle aged people) fruit (as in the case of Finland which is moving in this direction, though hampered by business exigencies owing to its relatively less rosy labour market conditions and higher rates of unemployment compared to the Nordic area) of the joint involvement of companies, workers and the social parties in the process of working toward the rehabilitation and activating of the older workforce. Here the tradition of continuous education finds new channels and means through which to spread, supported as it is throughout Europe, as the highway to keeping the middle aged active. In any event continuous education is considered one of the most interesting and useful tools for promoting the employability of workers through the whole arc of their working lives in accordance with the general inspiration and the numerous EU declarations on the subject.
In the overall panorama the United Kingdom stands out for its lack of homogeneity. Here there has been no reform of the welfare system, in its public component, already trimmed back in previous years and ‘improved’ by opting out choices towards the other pillars of the system, by the progressive reduction of public pension incomes and the parallel development of the weight of integrative social security (see Mirabile, M.L, (2006): “Essere Over. Età, lavoro e nuovi scenari di welfare”, Quaderno Spinn, n. 23, Roma, for a more extensive examination and more bibliographical references)
This then, stretching matters a little, is the synthetic reconstruction of the responses to the ageing phenomenon of the population-crisis in the welfare systems-paradox of the middle aged phenomenon; and from this overview we would like to stress above all the asymmetry which has characterized the action carried out on the welfare reform and labour market fronts, where there has been decisively more developed attention paid to the first, hastened along as it has been by a general alarm and — as we will seek to say later — by the certainly greater ‘ease’ of resolution of the central automatic pathways.
It is clear that the demographic imbalance of western society toward the most elderly of the population and the lengthening of the phases of life in the state of retirement have represented, and to some extent sill represent key orientation factors for the restructuring of the welfare systems, starting with the social security components. In light of this it is to be asserted that the need to correct these social security mechanisms in a future in which the working component would no longer be able to maintain the ‘resting’ group has resulted in a strong reforming action and important economic, political and social confrontations which together have tended to obscure the need for a contemporaneous and strong development of what should have been the cultural, economic and organisational prerequisites for a valid undertaking concerning the presence of the middle aged in the work place. This should be the case at least in the countries overburdened by universality limits and by a heritage of inefficiency in the related reform actions and of government.
Paradoxically alongside demographic imbalance in the 80s there occurred the collapse of employment among the middle aged, driven mainly by the needs of business to carry out industrial restructuring and technological innovation with limited investment in human capital (and to introduce, through intergenerational exchange of the workforce, new ‘rules of engagement’ for employment as a whole, in an ever more economic and flexible key). The collapse, which in some countries meant a drop of 20 percentage points in male employment was made feasible by the possibility of having recourse to early end of work mechanisms on a social security basis (pre-retirement and various kinds of pathways out) sufficient to maintain the incomes of workers who left production too soon. From this there came about the coming together of different interests among the economic and social parties which had given rise to what G. Naegale aptly baptized ‘the great pre-retirement alliance’.
Concerning all this the European action and that of the member states was only partly distinctive. Generally a widespread, simplified and approving common view went around of the ‘young retired man’ as a person responsible for his own unjustified inactivity.

Maria Luisa Mirabile: Head of Research, IRES (Istituto di Ricerche Economiche e Sociali) ‘Welfare and citisenship rights’ (Economics and Social Research Institute). Head of Italian Journal of Social Policy (Rivista delle Politiche Sociali). Lecturer at University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’.

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