Older people and employment in Scotland: research

An examination of attitudes and issues surrounding an older workforce.

Executive Summary


Population ageing will increase pressure on governments to balance expenditure on the older population with tax revenues. However, this demographic change can offer a range of opportunities to support longer and more fulfilling working lives for those older people who want or need to continue to work past retirement age.

This qualitative study is the second part of Scottish Government research into employment of older people. It interrogated the attitudes, behaviours and preferences of a mixed group of older people (aged 50+) in central Scotland regarding later-life working and retirement. It also collected rich in-depth data from a diverse range of employers to examine their attitudes, policies and practices surrounding an older workforce.

Both samples identified a number of benefits and opportunities associated with later life working, including health benefits for individuals and retention of vital skills and experience for employers. However, significant challenges and concerns were also raised. These centred on inequality of opportunities between different groups of older people. It was clear that choices over later working life were highly constrained for those on lower incomes, those in low-skilled jobs and those with significant caring responsibilities. These circumstances most often interact to disadvantage older women in particular. There was also a potential mismatch between the attitudes and expectations of older people and those of employers.

Findings suggest that there is a current window of opportunity to raise awareness of later-life working options among older people and employers to help promote opportunities, policies and practices around extended working life.

This section presents a summary of the key findings from the two parts of the study and then makes a series of recommendations to help overcome barriers among older people and employers across Scotland.

Summary of key findings

Older People

Attitudes, Motivations and Aspirations

The main finding from the older people's sample was the wide range of attitudes towards working in later life. Individuals' preferences were influenced by a host of previous life events and employment experiences over the course of their lives.

Around half of the sample group identified a range of positive factors associated with work which motivated them to continue in paid employment. Work was viewed as a good way of keeping physically active, and the social contact involved in working was deemed to be beneficial for mental health. The importance of work in providing meaning, identity and structure to the week was also highlighted.

A substantial majority of participants expressed a desire to reduce their working hours prior to retirement, though knowledge of flexible working options and provisions was low.

Only a minority of the sample expressed an interest in more training or career development. These participants were in their early 50s, with higher levels of education and working in professional roles.

Half of the sample group made reference to their financial circumstances when discussing the timing of retirement. Plans appeared to be closely tied to whether or not an individual had sufficient financial resources to ensure a reasonable standard of living without income from paid employment. Those participants with the highest household incomes and biggest pension pots had the greatest degree of choice over when to leave the labour market, compared to lower-income participants.

Around a quarter of participants indicated that they would like to retire before they reached state pension age but could not afford to do so. This was either because they would not have access to any other source of income, or because any state benefits, or private/occupational pension income they might receive would be insufficient to meet household needs. However, pensions sufficiency was less of a concern for the lowest earning participants as the move from low earnings to state pension would not represent a significant drop in their income.

There was a widespread lack of knowledge and understanding amongst participants relating to their own pension provision. Many participants did not know how much money they would receive out of their pension, and this lack of awareness applied not only to the state pension, but to private and occupational pensions as well. Participants generally were not aware of the state pension online calculator. Participants commonly did not know how to access unbiased, trustworthy information and advice about pensions. They also expressed a preference for paper-based information resources rather than online resources.

The rise in state pension age for women was regarded as a "shift in goalposts" for women, which meant that some women were required to revise what in many cases were long-held expectations about retirement timing. This was widely perceived as unfair.

Several participants claimed that they wished to continue to work in some capacity beyond retirement. Part-time work was commonly regarded as a viable way to supplement pension income post-retirement but there was some concern expressed about a perceived lack of good quality part-time jobs available.

Some participants indicated that they would be happy to undertake unpaid voluntary work post-retirement. They regarded voluntary work as a way of remaining active whilst contributing to the wider community. These participants tended to anticipate a financially secure retirement in which they would not need to work for pay.


Several participants indicated that they had already experienced ageism in the labour market, and felt that their skills and experience were undervalued. Many more were worried that they might be discriminated against on grounds of age if they left their current employer to look for a new job. Such concern could potentially act as a barrier to job mobility in later working life.

Worries surrounding job security emerged as a significant barrier to extending working life, particularly for those employees working within third sector organisations. Many of these participants, who were predominantly women, thought that it was more likely that they would be made redundant than reach retirement age in their current employment. This was strongly related to uncertainty of continued funding for their organisations.

Seven participants had experienced job loss in their fifties. They felt that Job Centres did not provide adequate support to older people to assist them with finding appropriate employment.

The majority of participants anticipated that health problems might eventually prove to be the main barrier to the extension of working life. Some participants already experienced health conditions that they feared would worsen over time and might impact their ability to work. Other participants were currently fit and well but expressed general fears about potential health problems in the future. Participants generally noted a gradual reduction of energy and the effects of accumulated work stress.

Caring responsibilities were another key barrier to working for longer, particularly for women. Time out from the labour market in order to care for dependents at earlier points in participants' lives was seen to have had a knock-on effect on their later-life employment. In addition, participants' future work plans were also affected by the anticipation of possible future caring responsibilities.

Lower-income women were most likely to suffer the financial consequences of insecure labour market conditions, caring responsibilities and health problems, especially if they were single or divorced. They were also more likely to be employed in less secure and lower-paid work. Such findings help to explain why the gender pay gap is higher among older cohorts of workers.

An intergenerational issue was identified, with some respondents expressing the view that by staying longer at work they would be depriving a younger person of a job.


Attitudes and Good Practice

In the main, employers were positive in their attitudes towards older workers, recognising that they bring valuable skills and experiences to the workplace.

Examples of good practice focused primarily on the retention of existing older workers, with very limited attention given to recruiting the over-50s.

Flexible working policies were the key way in which employers believed they could offer support to older workers. Flexible working provisions offered by employers in the sample group included reduced hours and allowing employees to arrange their working hours to accommodate caring responsibilities or health issues.

Among employers who had a positive approach to flexible working, there was very little targeting of this to their older workers. This was frequently explained as stemming from a concern that employers would be seen as ageist. This fear was also cited as a reason for not adopting specific policies towards the recruitment or retraining of older workers.


From an employer perspective, the increased prevalence of health problems amongst older workers was viewed as the main barrier to the extension of later life working. Employers expressed the view that age-related health issues potentially limit the type and structure of work that older employees are able to undertake. There was also a concern expressed around increased long-term sickness absence associated with health problems.

A mismatch was observed between those older workers that employers would like to retain and those who were actually staying in work for longer. Employers expressed interest in retaining their highly skilled, more highly qualified older employees but recognised that these employees often retired earlier because they had the financial means to do so.

Actions that could help older people to extend their working lives

This section identifies actions that could help reduce some of the barriers that older people may face if they choose to extend their working lives. These suggested actions are based upon the findings of the study. Some actions were suggested by research participants themselves (older people and employers). Other actions have been suggested by the study authors following analysis of the data collected in the study.

Suggested actions are categorised as follows: actions to address the needs of older people; actions for employers; ways in which older people and employers thought that Scottish Government could help.

Actions to address the needs of older people

1.Provide pension-related information via a range of channels and media, including traditional paper-based communication. This would aid better planning around later working life and retirement and needs to be done well before individuals reach retirement age.

2. Increase older people's awareness of flexible working opportunities and the right to request flexible working, highlighting the ways in which these can help employees to combine paid work with unpaid work, such as caring or volunteering.

3. Improve recognition that women still carry out the majority of caring responsibilities. This significantly affects their opportunities to engage in paid work and pensions accumulation over the course of their lives, including opportunities to extend working life. In light of some women's unpaid caring commitments, there needs to be more realistic expectations of the extent to which their working life can be extended. More support could be offered to women returning to the labour market after taking time out to care for dependents.

4. Tailor job-seeking support to meet the needs of older people. Job Centre staff need to recognise the considerable skills and experience that older people have developed over the course of their lives and suggest appropriate employment opportunities.

Actions for Employers

1. Raise awareness of flexible working and provide a greater range of flexible working opportunities. Policies and practices around flexible working should be promoted and disseminated across the entire workforce and a regular review of the uptake of flexible working opportunities would ensure that over-50s are not missing out.

2. Related to action 1, ensure all line managers are trained in communicating flexible work opportunities and are equipped with knowledge to deal with requests from older workers. This would help to achieve consistency of practice.

3. Develop specific policies for carers and create employee peer support networks. This would foster a supportive working environment for carers. Employers could take action to gain Carer Positive status from Carers Scotland [1] .

4. Actively include age considerations in all workforce planning, resourcing and career development or talent strategies. The following actions could be taken by employers:

  • Adopt an age checklist (such as the one produced by Mercer [2] and free to use).
  • Introduce unconscious bias training for recruitment managers.

5.Engage in conversations about later-life working or retirement rather than avoiding them for fear of being perceived as ageist. Instead ensure any conversations and initiatives are sufficiently broad to allow for a range of later-life working trajectories.

6.Introduce mid-career reviews. This would facilitate career development across the working life course and recognise that employees' needs will differ depending on their individual circumstances. Mid-career reviews could prevent a downward trajectory for employees after the age of fifty.

7.Introduce intergenerational mentoring. Older workers could be encouraged to share their skills and experience with younger workers. Reverse mentoring could also be useful, particularly in terms of younger workers passing on expertise in IT and social media to older workers who may be less familiar with these technological developments.

8.Take steps to promote and support older workers' physical and mental health.

  • Engage with the Healthy Working Lives Award Programme.
  • Raise awareness amongst line managers about the potentially debilitating symptoms and health conditions associated with menopause, in order to offer appropriate support if necessary.

Ways in which Employers and Respondents thought the Scottish Government could help [3]

1. Devise and run a publicity campaign to promote the potential benefits of longer-life working, alongside the promotion of job opportunities for the over-50s. This could raise awareness of opportunities among the older working population as well as help normalise working for longer in society through increasing visibility of older workers. It would also assist employers in their desire to retain more of their current older workers as well as attract more mature workers into their recruitment talent pool.

2. Lead a series of events and workshops for employers across Scotland to share good practice and to discuss adoption of more age-inclusive working practices.

3. Review and promote opportunities for life-long learning alongside Further and Higher Education providers in Scotland. This should be focused on filling the skills gap identified by employers, often around upskilling older workers in new technologies. It could also usefully address the preferences and expectations of older workers themselves around continued learning across a longer working life course.


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