Population ageing is one of the most significant characteristics of western society in qualitative as well as quantitative terms. This has a direct impact on the organisation of labour and the dynamics that govern it, where a person’s age is considered one of the main reference points for both entry into and exit from the market.
The setting of limits is a response to the need to protect the weak parts of the population from negative effects resulting from working activity. The limit on age of entry, indeed, protects the growth and development phase in the lives of boys and girls, or more generally of adolescents. Meantime it allows them to gain sufficient preparation for carrying out work they hope to do. That on exit concerns the elderly worker, not an easy category to define, but which is taken to be the reference point established for retirement. In this case the limit is intended to free people of a certain age from labour and working responsibility, actually giving them back the freedom to use their own time.
The parameter used in both cases and employed in the relevant laws, is the person’s age, a parameter which sets aside actual subjective conditions relating to the individuals concerned, and standardises the various processes, thus avoiding possible discrimination produced by different circumstances in which people live. In this short article we will speak specifically about the elderly worker in relation to the labour market, viewed both in the final phase of his working career (defined as working old age), and at the moment in which he experiences the passage from work to retirement.
2. The Reasons for and Meaning of Pension
The law establishes that people who reach a certain age have the right to leave their work in order to enjoy the benefits gained during the time devoted to that work. Retirement therefore, can be translated into an opportunity to be able to dispose of sufficient economic resources without the need to involve oneself in obtaining them. Under certain aspects it is a kind of prize and compensation, acknowledged as owing to persons for having contributed, through their work, to the economic and social development of a community. At the same time, with retirement, note is implicitly taken that the advance in years produces a physiological reduction of energy and motivation to work. It isn’t by chance that in common parlance, at least according to tradition, retirement age is also called age of rest.
These reasons were the basis for the birth of the pension institution and its being obligatory and hence for legislation in relation to welfare. These are certainly aspects which represented a highly significant social achievement in the economic and social history of the West. Among other things, thanks also to such achievements, which have significantly altered working life conditions, contexts were created which were favourable to the process of prolonging life, which we are still witnessing. Yet these reasons no longer have that meaningful import they once had. They no longer respond adequately to the needs of contemporary reality. So true is this that they are no longer capable of efficaciously interpreting the changes which have taken place in production processes nor the developments in technology and new work organisations, nor yet the objective improvement in the quality of life, including that of labourers, and hence the changed life styles or the processes by which people age, and so on. In this article it is not possible to adequately analyse every one of these aspects, however easily observable and perceptible they may be in reality. Rather, it is worth underlining some critical aspects, which to an extent represent, and from which these very aspects originate:
• work, especially in some of its forms, should not be considered only “a biblical curse”, but forms a solid support for one’s identity for those who perform it: in other words work certainly remains the main tool for obtaining the means of satisfying one’s needs, but at the same time it is a strong expression of one’s personality, abilities etc. Therefore it is not simply a chore, but also a means of self-fulfilment;
• the conditions in which work is carried out have improved decisively because of technological progress, and so the relevance of the back-breaking factor attributable to work has decreased significantly (at least in the vast majority of cases). Consequently a person’s general state of health at retirement is still good overall, and, in any event, sufficiently so as to permit the continuation of work without it compromising or damaging the state of health.
As is easy to understand, we are dealing with aspects which are not recognised in the traditional premises just mentioned and which, both in principal and in practice, do not tally with retirement seen as the obligatory interruption of work activity. And so a new reference framework emerges, in which the end of work and retirement no longer correspond simply to an inability to work or to some kind of expediency for getting out of the labour market.
Usually this problem is considered from the point of view of the sustainability of pension expenditure, and therefore of the characteristics a welfare system should have to be able to respond to the needs for which it is set up. The increase in life expectancy and the later entry by the young into the labour market have resulted in a crisis in the pension system founded on retribution which has been replaced by the contribution based system, which is better suited to economic sustainability. This perspective provides the basis and reasons behind the hypothesis of delaying exit from the market on the part of the elderly. On the one hand this would add greater consistency to the level of contributions made, consequently increasing the value of the available income at the time of retirement, and on the other a reduction in the period in which the pension would be enjoyed because of the decrease in life expectancy from the point of leaving employment.
This hypothesis still meets considerable opposition since it is seen as a deterioration in the life of the worker and a permanent loss of the original and symbolic meaning of the pension as a prize-compensation to the worker.
In fact this subject and the problems resulting from it are much more complex and not limited to mere economic calculations because they are directly interlinked with the questions concerned with ageing, and particularly with active ageing. With this expression (Active Ageing) the World Health Organisation, in 1999, meant to mark ageing as a “process of optimising opportunities for health, participation and security to improve the quality of life while a person ages”. Few words to highlight three fundamental aspects:
• The processing and progression of ageing, which prevents one from considering old age as a simple category or a biological or social condition;
• The multi-dimension nature of the process with regard to the physical and biological system, but also mental faculties and social relations;
• The social nature of the process which unites the individual approach to the social one, placing them both in a systemic perspective of a broader responsibility.
This means that carrying out an activity in old age and taking on commitments and specific responsibilities have a positive influence on the quality of ageing itself, contributing to giving meaning to that age. It is no longer appropriate, therefore to associate the earlier tendency to rest with old age, as can be seen when observing the past.
We should immediately clear up any possible misunderstanding that the previous statement could create, if the concept of activity (in old age) is understood as working activity, or worse still, as work. This would be a simplification that would betray the meaning which studies on ageing give to the term “active” (active ageing). But it would equally be a simplification, if activity carried out in work contexts and therefore within an organisation, were to be completely separated from activity carried out in the context of old age and retirement themselves.
The matter is not easily explained, especially because it is impossible or inappropriate to give a single explanation that applies in every case. Ageing in an active way means keeping interests and plans that require material and non material action to pursue them; it means acknowledging and making the most of acquired experience and passing it on to others; it means cultivating the desire for learning and participating in educational programmes; it means heeding curiosity and seeking the means of satisfying it; etc.. The panorama thus presented is very different from the one relating to activity carried out within the labour market. Moreover some distinguishing points must be introduced regarding, on the one hand, gender specifics, as a result of which men and women do not age in the same way, and on the other, personal and professional characteristics of the workers themselves, which avoid them being considered all the same and equal, simply because they have the same biographical age. Actually the employee ages differently from the self-employed and there cannot be a single model which guarantees that the one and the other will age in an “active” way. This also holds as good for those who made more use of their intellectual and mental faculties when working, as those involved in manual labour; it also holds as good for those who worked in the service sector as for those engaged in industry etc.
Even accounting for diversity it is possible to draw a first conclusion, common to every situation. This is that during working life attention should be paid to active ageing as a perspective and objective to be pursued, and this should not begin only when work stops. This is because ageing occurs in the continuity of life and because moments of passage, though they occur between one phase and the next, cannot be lived as so many breaks, but rather as adaptations required by new contexts and conditions which come about.
So, it can be stated then that ageing, besides being a subjective fact and experience involving the single individual, is also a social matter that concerns the choices and policies made by employment institutions and organisations.
The subject is not as obvious as might appear at first sight, and there is often a deep-seated ambiguity between lingering reasons based in the past and those which come about based on thoughts concerning the present, and still more the future. It is an ambiguity that is often simmering under because of the objective difficulty of explaining the content.
These arguments will be taken up again in the pages that follow, in order to support their importance with some further theoretical reflections and some research results.
3. Working Old Age
So far we have spoken about recorded age and retirement: this is only one of the aspects that concern the relationship between ageing and work.
Before this we should consider a worker’s ageing while he/she is still within a company organisation where, the years spent in the company, i.e. employment seniority, count more than the chronological age as such. This is not only relevant in determining the moment to leave the labour market (together with the recorded age of the worker), i.e. retirement, but it has particular significance within the company organisation itself.
The perspective which thus takes shape is certainly more complex than the preceding one and it is impossible to give an unambiguous description. In regard to this the influences deriving from the company dimension, from the organisation culture characterising companies, from the environment where they are situated, from the ownership arrangements, from the industry sector are important. Despite this multiplicity of frameworks some common lines concerning the management of the elderly worker can be highlighted. The following points in particular are examined:
• the profile of the elderly worker;
• age management in relation to the organisation of work
• the management of labour market exit because of age.
These points are common to all companies, however different they may be. We will take account of this while being aware that it would be worth studying much of the information supplied in greater depth.
4. Profile of the Elderly Worker
In order to speak of profile it is necessary to draw attention to to two different situations:
• Whether the worker develops his personal carreer and personal employment path in a single place or several places of employment;
• The work content, and hence the responsibilities covered in working roles.
The ways in which these situations intertwine generate various types of elderly workers. On one hand there are service seniorities which develop within a single company, through the exercising of the same or various roles. These are assigned to people according to criteria that can stress competences in a specific sector or spread these competences in various sectors according to the needs of the company and the abilities of the individual. On the other hand there are seniorities which develop as one moves from one company to another, and where once again, individuals can either perform the same function, progressively improving their specific competences, or seek new functions, in different sectors, with a view to increasing their personal wealth of tools and knowledge.
Independently of the choices which every person makes, the elderly worker profile has certain characteristics that merit clarification:
• Competences needed for the performance of a certain activity, acquired and developed during a career are improved with experience, i.e. with those “tacit or rather undefined and indefinable competences which form part of a technical-professional profile and which are acquired through non-mechanical repetition of simple or complex operations”. Non-mechanical repetition implies a critical attitude and therefore a personal investment in doing, which cannot be mere performance, a condition which cannot be taken for granted, but that is easily found in a worker at the end of his career;
• During one’s career one has to use various tools and follow various procedures in accordance with the circumstances and the technological applications with which he is involved. Such a situation requires constant adaptation and real learning and therefore an effort and an investment for the elderly person, who compared to young workers risks a reduction in the value of experience;
• Staying on in a company makes the elderly worker a witness to what has been defined the company culture, i.e. that “ensemble of values, behaviours, symbols and meanings that constitute the heritage and the mission” of the same company. There can be differences, depending on the length of the time spent in one or more companies, consequent on the type of career pursued, but this takes nothing from the essential worth of such an element. This is the least obvious characteristic in the elderly worker profile, since it is an integral part of his way of behaving and of his way of relating both within the company to which he belongs and towards the outside environment. Yet it is justly considered an irreplaceable component of any skill.
Renzo Scortegagna: University of Padova.
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Tags: Age management in business, Elderly workers exit, Exit from companies