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Is old the new young?

As populations across the globe continue to age, Tim Bird asks if society's attitudes can change at the same pace...


Teppo Turkki


Perceptions of age are changing, but perhaps not always fast enough to deal with the economic consequences of ageing populations.

These are nervous days for us 50-somethings. Having set our sights on a clear pension horizon for our entire working lives, we are wondering if we are going to make it to the finishing line before it’s moved further into the future. At the same time, the expert advice is telling us to rejoice at the possibility that we might need to keep working for another three, five, even ten years.

But it’s a simple equation: if we do not work longer as a population, we cannot contribute to the pension funds needed to support us through periods of old age that are being significantly extended by better standards of living and medical care.

“This is nearly a non-existent issue in our shared consciousness,” says Teppo Turkki, Sitra Fellow and Resident Scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. “Questions of ageing are still too far from us and maybe too theoretical, at least in countries like Finland. We have a few years or a decade before we witness the kind of phenomena seen in Japan. It’s interesting to walk around smaller Japanese cities where you can actually see how older people form the majority in the street.”

In most western societies, the idea of retirement around the age of 60 is very deeply rooted in our society and in the rhetoric of labour movements, says Turkki. “It is very much a question of how to change our expectations and preconceptions. I think we have to start to communicate the facts about longer lives widely, to describe and tell different stories about those people who actually do work longer and who benefit from their efforts, economically, psychologically and socially.”

Employers with enlightened HR policies towards older employees have a key role to play, Turkki believes. “We also need much more research about this matter. Governments need to raise awareness and include this issue in just about every aspect of our societal future.” 

In Finland preparations are more advanced than in many countries. “We have pretty good statistics and the basic research has been done. Insurance and pension organisations have a lot of knowledge. The challenge is more to do with political understanding and fresh public discussion. But I think we are lagging a bit behind countries like The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Japan. Especially in Germany there has been a lot of very visionary research and dialogue between academics and society.”

Overcoming prejudices

“Getting employed again at retirement age is unusual in Finland,” says Mirjami Laitinen, who recently took up a part-time post at Sitra as a senior advisor on a project to develop e-services for the public sector. Having retired from her previous post as Director-General of the Finnish Tax Administration, Laitinen is well qualified to comment on continuing employment at pensionable age. In her view, attitudes towards more “mature” workers still need changing in Finland.

“Even though in Finland we have an ‘elastic’ retirement age, it is typical for most people to retire as soon as they possibly can,” she says. “Re-employment has been typical only for people who have been able to retire at below common retirement age. These people have often established their own businesses or continue on a self-employed basis.

“It is getting more and more common for example within the third sector, but also in healthcare, for new jobs to become available. It is not so unusual either in the business sector, and I have noticed that some companies have established ‘human resources banks’ for retired employees to be able to give them work whenever the company temporarily needs more people.”

But Laitinen thinks that prejudices and attitudes towards older people are fairly negative in Finland: “It is visible when personnel numbers have to be cut in both private and public sectors: it’s the older people who go first. I have heard too that as people approach retirement age they may be forced to say when they intend to retire. I think it is the same thing as saying to them: ‘It’s time for you to give up and to go.’ That is why I believe that we need new attitudes towards older people. And if I compare the situation in Finland with that in the other Nordic countries, people in those countries can start new careers more easily after the age of 50.”

In denial

Mirjami Laitinen suggests that people in Finland and elsewhere may be in denial to some extent when it comes to the issue of retirement age. “We all know it will be necessary to continue working when we consider the national economy and decreasing working hours, and I believe it will become more common. But at the same time we really need a new kind of thinking.  For me it was like winning the lottery to be able to start working for Sitra, although I have since received two requests to work as a mentor for young people.”

Other countries show the way forward, says Turkki – sometimes with long-established ideas rather than new ones. “Japan has a Confucian tradition and people there still respect seniority and old people, as they do in China and Korea,” he says. “Many Japanese companies – particularly SMEs – try to get their older workers not to retire. The post-war baby-boomer generation has an important role to play in Japan’s future.”

Research has confirmed that older people can be good, productive workers, says Turkki, adding that an optimal “age mix” will be a crucial competitive factor in the future.  But in any event, he believes that the challenge is more to do with the imagination and creativity of employers than in the need for more legislation. “It may be that in the future, national competitiveness will take the form of a competition pitting the adaptability and cognitive skills of developed nations against the sheer number of people and size of a young labour force in developing nations,” he has written.

Mirjami Laitinen concludes with some sensible advice to employees: “If you’re thinking of retiring, I would like to say: don’t hurry, the time to leave working life will come soon enough. Stay active, educate yourself – and remain in working life as long as you possibly can.”

Tim Bird

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