Extending working life: what needs to change to make policies work?

In Episode 13 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Professor Nicky LeFeuvre from the University of Lausanne discusses findings from DIAL’s DAISIE project (Dynamics of Accumulated Inequalities for Seniors in Employment, which has been exploring the gendered impacts of policies aimed at extending working life. 




Christine Garrington  0:00  

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In series three we’re discussing emerging findings from DIAL research. For this episode, we’re talking to Nicky LeFeuvre from the University of Lausanne about findings from DIAL’s DAISIE project, which has been exploring the gendered impacts of policies aimed at extending working life. I started by asking her to talk about the policy backdrop to the research

Nicky LeFeuvre  0:25  

Over the last 10 or 12 years there has been this quite widespread consensus about the need to extend working lives and this consensus has existed at national levels, you know, government initiatives, also across international organisations like the OECD, and the dominant narrative has been based on kind of two or three basic assumptions this inevitability of increasing full pension age, to keep pace with life expectancy. Questions about the sustainability of our existing welfare systems, pension systems, and also a discourse around personal individual choice and personal responsibility. You know, this idea fielded by the OECD that people are increasingly free to construct their own biographies and so there has been this sort of focus on rewardingly later retirement or penalising early retirement in actual fact, and relatively little concern for the inherent, I would say dynamics of accumulated inequality that lie behind this policy objective. And so this was very much something that we wanted to address in the in the DAISIE project and of course, it was completely in line with the overall aims of the DIAL programme. And our sort of particular focus was to say okay, individuals are receiving this policy discourse which is relatively homogenous across the board, and what are they doing with it? Okay, how is this really impacting on their lives? And notably, how is this being interpreted and acted upon by their employers, by the occupations that they’re in? And to what extent their past life experiences, particularly their employment histories, and the way that their past employment has been articulated with their care duties if they happen to be women? How is all this coming together to produce a, what we presume would be quite a varied experience of what extended working life actually means for individuals and for organisations, to be honest.

Christine Garrington  2:28  

Yeah, now that brings me very nicely on to my next question, actually, because in recent years, policymakers have really recognised the need, the importance of taking, you know what we talked about as a life course approach to this issue, something you’ve just hinted at, and, and this is something that really resonates with your research. Tell us why this is so important.

Nicky LeFeuvre  2:45  

I think there has been it’s been slow to come, but it is there, I would say, perhaps emerging recognition that rather than full-fledged recognition at the moment of the need to avoid the accumulation of individual disadvantages over the life course in terms of extended working life and this is related to health issues. You know, we do not age equally, people are not as equally able to envisage extending their working lives and they’re also not as equally motivated to do so. So that this recognition has come or is coming slowly. And in the most recent OECD document, for example, which is entitled working better with age, there is this idea that perhaps there has been too, too much of focus on these financial incentives. So making it you know, financially penalising people for leaving the labour market too early with the too being in speech marks and the need to address what is often termed demand side barriers to extended working life. And I really do like this this quote from the OECD that now recognises the fact that we need workers who want to work longer and also employers who want to employ them, and I think this is really the crux of the issue here. You know, there’s there is this emerging shift towards the recognition that this is not just about individual choice that these extended work, working life issues are related to a whole host of structural constraints and opportunities. And this is really what we were wanting to do in the DAISIE project. It does really resonate with us because we were arguing that it is important to look beyond macro level policies and to study exactly how they are being interpreted how they’re being applied by employers and by individuals according to the you know, particular histories and their particular circumstances. So yes, this this really was very exciting for us, because we did see this policy shift on the horizon, as we were, you know, preparing to to address those issues in the project.

Christine Garrington  4:58  

Yeah, that’s great. That’s a really neat summary of the backdrop to this work. So let’s move on then. And if you could give us an outline an overview of what the DAISIE project has actually been doing?

Nicky LeFeuvre  5:12  

We set out to adopt what we called a multi-level research design, because we wanted to integrate as I just said, the policy background obviously you can’t completely abstract this out of your reasoning. So we did want to look at the similarities or the variations in these extended working life policies across countries and see whether there were some best practices or some policy recommendations that were being really adopted across the board and others that were perhaps, you know, more localised in certain contexts or certain countries. So we wanted this macro level analysis of working life practices, but also the objectives that were that were being defined by by different policymakers, either at the EU level or in particular countries. We also wanted to sort of micro socio sort of individual analysis. So we wanted to explore particularly the well-being, the health and the work life balance issues that older workers were facing. So we knew we wanted to use biographical accounts we wanted life history interviews, we wanted really to be able to get at the experiences of older workers, which are kind of slightly invisiblised in the policy documents. And in order to integrate those two levels or those two scales of analysis, we needed the mezzo level which is the sort of intermediate level the occupational and the organisational level, as I said previously, often sort of left out of existing analyses in order to look at what was happening in different employment sectors. And therefore, we adopted this case study method where we selected three different occupations or three different sectors: finance, health and transport. And with our sort of cross-national comparative perspective, we then looked at these three sectors that we could compare both within with other sectors within the same country and across countries to see whether these extended working-like issues were being addressed and implemented to the same extent and in the same ways in different sectors and in different countries.

Christine Garrington  7:20  

Such an ambitious programme of research and also at a very challenging time with everything going on with COVID.

Nicky LeFeuvre  7:27  

Carrying out empirical fieldwork during the COVID pandemic was a little bit challenging for us. But what we’ve actually done is cross country and cross sector comparative analysis using case studies that we carried out in the five countries and in three different sectors as I said, health sector, health sector, finance and transport. We have collected a huge amounts of empirical data, qualitative data to a large extent. We’ve used biographical interviews with older workers, male and female workers, and we have about 500 of these interviews across the board. We have of course prepared English language summaries of these interviews because we have to now compare them comparatively and they were not carried out all in the same language. So as you can imagine, this is slightly challenging. And we’ve also done about 60 expert interviews and we met up in each country and each company we went into we met with the human resource managers, we we talked to line managers, trade union representatives, and so on, to get a feel of how ageing at work was being framed in these different institutions. And we have a collection of about 500 life course grids, which enable us to kind of visualise the life course events that led up to people ageing at work, if you like. So the family events, the residential ability events and of course, their employment histories that frame the ways in which they are now thinking about whether they’re going to retire at what age they want to retire, whether they could envisage extending their working lives and under what circumstances. So quite quite a wealth of data. We’re starting to get to grips with along with a secondary statistical analysis that we did previous to the to the case studies.

Christine Garrington  9:12  

So what are the sort of the first things, most the things that you did early on Nicky I think was to map older workers employment trends, what were the key things to emerge there?

Nicky LeFeuvre  9:22  

We were really interested in looking at cross national differences here. And of course, we do see and that’s not you know, that’s unsurprising given given the convergence in the policy measures that I mentioned earlier. We do see a convergence of the employment rates, basically in the 55 to 64 year age group, I would say. So if we look at the data over the past 10 years, the differences between countries have been reduced. We still have about, you know, up to 20% difference in employment rates at 55 to 64. So this is not negligible at all, but the differences across countries are becoming smaller. So there’s there’s this idea of a kind of norm of extended working life, but remember, I’m talking about 55 to 64 here so what we’re really looking at is actually encouraging people to work up to full retirement age and very little actually about encouraging people to work beyond full retirement age. I think that’s a you know, quite an important point to remember when we’re talking about ageing at work. In actual fact, we’re looking at 55 to 64. And that’s where you know that the changes have been over recent years. The other important thing to remember is that there has been a slight reduction in the gender gap in retirement timing. Over the same period, women do continue to retire earlier than than their male counterparts in in almost all of the countries we’ve looked at. And of course, that’s why they they are to a certain extent the prime targets of many extended working life policies in recent years. But the the gap in the retirement, the actual retirement age of men and women has been falling. And that’s also very interesting because it means that the gender dimension of what it means to age at work becomes particularly important to look at in detail.

Christine Garrington  11:18  

So although as you said, you looked across a number of employment sectors, we’re going to be focusing in on the finance sector for our interview today. So my first question is why the finance sector?

Nicky LeFeuvre  11:28 

We were trying to decide which sectors to focus our case studies on. Several criteria were taken into consideration. One of them was of course the gender composition so we wanted sectors that was sort of contrasting in terms of the share of male and female workers. So healthcare was our sort of highly feminised sector transport our highly masculinised and finance our sort of gender balanced sector. Then we wanted sectors where the share of older workers was quite variable. And finance actually is the sector where we have the lowest share of older workers of the three sectors we looked at we have more or less depending on countries there is some variation around 20 to 30% of over 50 year olds in the finance sector, which is let’s to give an example half the rates of older workers in employment compared to the transport sector for example. So quite a low share of older workers in finance. And this is obviously related to the history of the of the sector of the occupation. Which is an occupation which has been downsizing and restructuring for the past 20 to 30 years. And where older workers have in most countries been targeted during these restructuring, downsizing operations and have often been offered various early retirement packages, or at least some older workers, mostly male managers, in fact, have been offered packages. And so the finance sector has kind of lopped off a whole generation. And this means that today, it is one of the sectors were that were older workers are relatively underrepresented. But it’s a sector that is now facing a number of challenges whether these rather generous early retirement packages have become financially non-viable, and where there’s also been some recognition that the accumulated experience of older workers, actually the banks actually needed that experience in order to face the new challenges. And so there is a shift in policy and this was also very interesting for us.

Christine Garrington  13:39  

Okay, let’s move on to some numbers then. What were you able to see in terms of the share or the proportions of the numbers of older workers in the finance sector?

Nicky LeFeuvre  13:47  

So, the moment we have a very, very small share of older workers, if I give you just you know, some figures for example, in in the Czech Republic, only 10% of men working in the finance sector are aged over 50 in 2019, but 20% of women in the Czech finance sector are aged over 50. So this is also interesting. It’s one of the rare sectors where, proportionally speaking, the share of older women, as compared to the whole female workforce is greater than the share of older men as part of the male workforce. And this is quite a rare configuration in sort of the European labour markets at the moment. So that was also something that we were very interested in exploring further.

Christine Garrington  14:31  

So let’s dig now into some of the rather wonderful data that you’ve been collecting, especially that qualitative data so when you asked workers about their experiences of being older employees in this sector, what were some of those key things that come out of that? Of what they told you?

Nicky LeFeuvre  14:46 

Well, perhaps I can, I can start with a rather eloquent quote from one of our Swiss interviewees, and I mean you have to take this against the backdrop of this very sort of systematic offloading of older workers over the past 30 years from the banking sector, and one of our interviewees said sort of almost in a whisper “ageing is something we just don’t talk about in this bank”. And this really I think, translates quite nicely how stigmatised the question of ageing is within the banking sector. We came across a lot of negative stereotypes about older workers. Older workers are systematically presented as lacking skills, being unable to keep up with the pace of organisational and technological change. And to a certain extent, this is of course the banks justifying their past age management policies which were almost entirely based on externalising ageing at work if you like, getting rid of their older workers, before they actually had to deal with ageing at work. And so in a lot of our interviews, ageing was seen as either something that could possibly enable one to leave the finance sector well before reaching retirement age. So you know showing that you were not able to adapt was seen as as a as a good reason to to leave early, or as something that was quite risky in that the bank could therefore consider you to be too old and and not flexible enough to face the challenges of this digital revolution that’s going on in in banking, and therefore you could be made redundant because you were not keeping up with the pace of things. So basically, there was this idea that age is something that we don’t talk about and older workers are a great pains to prove to their employers and to the themselves and to their colleagues, that they are actually not part of this terrible stigmatised group that one would call older workers.

Christine Garrington  16:56  

So some quite unexpected views expressed there about this whole issue of being an older worker, and what are the implications of that for any sort of age management policies that any business might want to put in place in this sector?

Nicky LeFeuvre  17:10  

Any kind of age management strategies that are adopted in this in this context, are destined to fail basically, because people refuse to be identified with a stigmatised group. That would be the target of you know, these age management policies, and therefore, even when there are minimal measures, I mean, we didn’t have a huge range of age management measures that we came across in our case study banks but most of them were related rather to the transition to retirement. So you know, accompanying workers in the transition to retirement, which we consider not really to be age management policies at all because this is you know, this is thinking about how to get rid of your older workers still, rather than thinking about what you do with them when they stay. But even in in those cases, there was a very, very low take up rate because nobody really wanted to run the risk of being identified as an older worker, because this was such a, you know a stigmatised category, and no one wanted to be demoted, or no one wanted to be encouraged to leave because they were part of that group.

Christine Garrington  18:13  

So Nicky, there seems to be a real disjunct – a real mismatch here between the sort of policy top level policy narrative that you outlined earlier and what you’re actually hearing on the ground from workers. You know, what, what’s your take on all of that? How does this chime with that policy narrative that you were outlining?

Nicky LeFeuvre  18:29  

Yes, so I mean, I think these results do, really do tell us that any serious attempt at extending the duration of our working lives requires the active involvement of employers in the business sector as a whole. It’s it’s quite incredible I think that we should find such a small share of older workers in a non-manual sector like banking, where the physical limitations to you know working longer in terms of health and well-being should in theory be far more limited than in the health sector or in the transport sector, but actually, we find the opposite. We find that finance, in finance we have a small share of older workers. So this really does confirm that postponing retirement is not only about health, it’s not only about financial incentives, and it is very much about how older workers are perceived within particular sectors, how they are treated by their employers, and particular I think in those parts of the job market that are looking to reduce staff costs that are looking to scale down their activities or who are confronted with technological change or organisational restructuring. Then, then we really do have to accompany I think companies in in looking at how they, how they frame the whole issue of, of ageing and working.

Christine Garrington  19:51  

Something I found quite extraordinary in in your research was that when you spoke to companies they expressed, expressed a reluctance or hesitation to introduce any age related policies for fear that this would somehow be seen as discriminatory in some way. What’s your take on that?

Nicky LeFeuvre  20:08  

We had a number of examples where HR managers line managers went to great lengths to explain to us that they couldn’t offer any positive support to their older workers because this would be seen to be discriminatory towards other groups of workers. And so we were kind of left a little bit speechless at this thinking, but what interpretation of equal opportunity is being developed here? And why is it that companies believe and they do apparently strongly believe that any accommodation of ageing in organisational structures in the way that work is shared  out or the way working time expectations or or shift work organisation – anything that would facilitate the experiences of older workers identified as a group with potentially some needs that are different to those of other age groups. This should not be seen as discrimination. This should be seen as equal opportunity policy, and it shouldn’t be seen as coming into conflict, for example, with gender equality policies or with parental support policies or whatever other objectives companies are seeking to meet. So I think, really applying or emphasising the need to think equal opportunities in an intersectional way looking at how gender and age and ethnic origin and disability and so on, interact across the life course and how employers can deal with these in innovative and creative and complex ways. I think this would be really something very useful because we were struck by this, this difficulty that that organisations were facing in thinking through what they could actually do to support their, their older workers.

Christine Garrington  22:05  

You did make a number of quite clear recommendations for employers and policy makers in the work that you’ve done. Can you just talk us through those?

Nicky LeFeuvre  22:12  

The need for organisations I would say, you know, policymakers at the national level, international level, but also within companies to recognise that there is a potential mismatch. In fact, in the older workers we are talking about as a target group for extended working life policies. Spontaneously when we when we talk to to employers about the kind of older workers that they would be interested in keeping on that they would be interested in training or that they would be interested to target for bridge schemes or for unretirement schemes as they call it and so this possibility of employing retirees back perhaps on a on a reduced rate. Companies do have quite clear, clear image of the kind of worker that they would be interested in in involving in those kinds of schemes. Unfortunately, those images do not equate very well with the profiles of the workers who are actually motivated and interested in extending their working lives. Who tend not to be the most highly qualified or who tend not to be the workers who have continuous employment histories. Who have had haven’t had any major health events during their adult life course, who haven’t had any significant care commitments that have taken them out of the labour market, who have relatively comfortable financial arrangements made for their latter years and so on and so forth.

Christine Garrington  23:37 

So among the people you spoke to then, who was motivated to extend their working lives and why? 

Nicky LeFeuvre  23:45  

Workers can also be motivated because for example, they have developed their careers quite late on in life. So maybe they are just moving into a management position because they’ve had, if they’re women, they have had some years out of employment for family reasons. We also had a number of very interesting testimonies from older women saying that continuing to work longer was actually very attractive to them, because it was one way of avoiding being swamped by care duties that they could be expected to take charge off in later life. So either you know, being on call for grandchildren or being available for elderly dependent relatives. This idea that continuing to work was actually a way of avoiding being overwhelmed by by these care expectations was something perhaps something we were not expecting to find to such a wide extent. And so quite clearly, women like that who are interested in extending their working lives as long as their working conditions are adapted to their needs are not being identified at the moment as resources that employers could call upon, and people that the employers could have in mind when they think about how they are going to manage age. You know what strategies they’re going to put in place and how they’re going to start, operationalizing their age management policies before people become old you know before people get to within two or three years of retiring.

Christine Garrington  25:20  

So is there a simple message in all of this?

Nicky LeFeuvre  25:22  

Making it clear that they’re the kind of people that employers would spontaneously think about as their target group for extending working lives are not necessarily primarily the people who are interested in extending their working lives, but there are other groups who are highly motivated to work for longer. I think this is you know, one message that we can pull out of the research that could translate into some quite exciting and quite innovative policy decisions on the ground as it were.

Christine Garrington  25:55  

Dynamics of accumulated inequalities for seniors in employment is a DIAL research project, looking at the gendered impacts of policies and an extended working life. You can find out more on the DIAL website at dynamicsofinequality.org. Thanks for listening to this episode of our podcast, which was presented by me, Chris Garrington and edited by Elina Kilpi-Jakonen.