The British mind-set lags behind statistics, if recent research is to be believed.  Despite a looming skills gap, the majority of British people apparently limit the careers of older workers, are not interested in making it easier for immigrants to come to the United Kingdom and also oppose financial incentives to encourage British woman to have more children. 

The Financial Times reports this week that over-50s are predicted to make up more than a third of the UK workforce by 2020, and employers are already losing skilled workers at such a rapid rate that they are unable to replace them quickly enough with new recruits:

“The reality is that we face a stark skills gap, as the baby boomers approach retirement at a rate faster than they can be replaced,” said Prof Kirkwood, Dean for Ageing at Newcastle University, who warned that neither government nor business were taking the imminent problem seriously.

Many argue that older people are very capable of working into later life – and soon we may well need them to.

The research, commissioned by Astellas Pharma, sought to understand attitudes towards an ageing workforce, interviewing 2,000 members of the public and 542 business leaders.  It found that most business leaders actually believe that older workers can continue to be valuable employees.  Most believe that they can use necessary equipment, are physically able to do their work and contribute positively to their various businesses.

In fact, forty per cent of those surveyed felt that older workers were more productive than younger ones.  Despite this, more than half of business leaders admitted that they make no effort to recruit those older than 50.

Statistics show that British people are already working longer.  Of those aged between 55 to 64, 58.1 per cent are still working, up from 50.1 per cent in 2000. Between 2002 and 2012, workforce participation among those aged 65 to 75 doubled to 16 per cent.

I wonder whether these statistics reflect the recession Britain, along with many countries in the world, has experienced over the past few years or simply an increasing willingness on the part of employers to employ older workers.  If the former is the case, economic recovery may bring its own problems for the British workforce. 

Although I have not yet experienced being elderly, personally I think I might welcome the opportunity to work and use my mind for longer – if it was something I enjoyed that was not too physically demanding that is.  Perhaps the aging workforce brings with it an opportunity for us to open up more jobs to older people.

Despite such positives, governments – and people – around the world need to wake up to this problem and think about ways to make motherhood attractive to our talented and increasingly well-educated young woman. 

If education begins in the home, an educated mother should mean educated children to provide us with their skills in the future.  We need to appreciate the contribution to society educated mothers make simply by bringing up their children. Perhaps more than financial incentives, woman need to feel confident in themselves that motherhood is economically and socially contributing to society, rather than just being ‘a nice personal choice’.  Can we also become more flexible to better allow mothers to contribute in a part time capacity – perhaps from home in this age of email and internet communication – where their skills fit.  At the other end of the scale, maybe we also need to better appreciate the contribution older workers can make in many areas of our economy.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...