Designing for aging

It was the headline on the torn-out article, pinned on the notice board, that caught my eye. ‘I did an Ironman at the age of 74’. It set me musing thinking on the several cases of people in their, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s doing counter-stereotypical things that I’ve noticed in the last few weeks. Perhaps these observations are prompted by the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old actress Sheila Hancock, climbs a mountain, the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, in Scotland.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intending to. I’ve been reading about Hancock’s experience of training and climbing it.

I also read about Aleksander Doba aged 70 who’s kayaked solo across the Atlantic 3 times, (among other kayaking feats). And in talking to someone about him I got the book recommendation Age is Just a Number by Charles Eugster. It’s a wonderful and cheering book. He took up weight lifting and athletics in his mid-eighties and became a ‘sprints sensation’ at the age of 95.

These active elders are not all athletes (or actresses). At the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition is a striking portrait of artist and Royal Academician, Ken Howard, now 85, still painting and with his own paintings also in the Exhibition. The person I went to the exhibition with mentioned Lynn Ruth Miller, a comedienne, aged 85 and going strong.

Sensitised to incredible elders, I spotted a headline ‘Don’t brand over-60s old and doddery, BBC is told’. Age UK, submitting to OFCOM on the BBC’s portrayal of various ethnic and demographic groups is of the view that whereas the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and LBGT people are, in the main, vocally represented, there is a lack of consideration for older citizens in the way they are depicted on television and radio.

This tends to hold true in terms of workplace attitudes to older people. Earlier this year, the UK’s CIPD gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In January 2017 the UK Government published a report Older Workers and the Workplace (based on data collected betwee 2004 and 2011 – so somewhat dated now) which found that ‘while on average older employees fare better than employees aged 22-49 in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment, [they] were less likely to receive training. The better average outcomes in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment may reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have left employment by this age.’

Perhaps, combating the ‘old and doddery’ stereotype the researchers found ‘no significant associations between changes in the proportion of older workers employed between 2004 and 2011 and changes in workplace performance over the same period. … this suggests that overall the age composition of private sector workplaces does not have a sizeable role to play in explaining their performance. We do find some evidence that workplace labour productivity falls where the proportion of workers aged 22-49 falls, either due to a rise in the proportion of older or younger workers.’

They also found that ‘many employers value older workers, recognising their experience, loyalty and reliability. Furthermore, while we find no association between change in age diversity and change in workplace performance, age diversity may bring other benefits in the workplace; we find that job satisfaction was higher among young workers in workplaces which employed higher proportions of older workers.’

All that sounds promising. Summarising – older people who are in work are not old and doddery, they are good contributors to the workplace, enjoy what they do, and do not seem to have a negative impact on workplace productivity. (Although, this last needs more research).

But there are some caveats: ‘Existing evidence has suggested that while employers often recognise the benefits of retaining their existing older workers, they can be less willing to recruit ‘new’ older workers.’ Additionally, ‘Generating better outcomes for older workers may therefore require greater focus on other employer practices, such as provision of flexible working or job design.’

Echoing this view is the finding from researchers at the IES. In their report What do older workers value about work and why? They note that ‘There are very few differences between the preferences of older and young workers. However, there are a few factors that become more important with age. Health has the biggest effect on older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, more so than job satisfaction or job quality. Some older workers will therefore place greater value on flexibility at work, adjustments or part-time working hours to accommodate health needs or caring.’

With this in mind they offer 14 steps that employers can take to promote fulfilling work and create age-friendly workplaces. They’re worth a look as several are immediately relevant to organisation and job design, for example: ‘Ensure that older workers have variety and autonomy in their work’ and ‘Design roles for older people that maximise social contact and interaction’.

Looking in more detail at designing work for the mature worker, is the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They have a research stream aimed at understanding the role of work in successful aging – not only because the proportion of older workers is increasingly globally, but also because there is an imperative to minimize health costs by encouraging healthier aging. The health of nations, ‘will be served through creating work that preserves the wellbeing and social, psychological, and mental capital of older workers.’

They are specifically looking at ‘what types of work designs … and organisational supports promote healthy work for older people. … We will further investigate how cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is preserved or maintained through good work. The idea that work can be designed to facilitate such outcomes is part of an emerging perspective that mental and psychological capital can be enhanced across the lifespan.’

Tellingly, none of the extraordinary older people I mention at the start of this piece are in organisational work. They are all self-employed, pursuing their own interests and making a living at it. I wonder how organisational performance could be improved if we were able to design work that encouraged more older people to enter or stay in the workforce and fostered the drive and energy shown in those people? It seems likely to be for the benefit not just of older workers, but all workers.

What’s your view of designing work with the older working in mind? Let me know.

Image: Ken Howard, painted by Tim Hall