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Does age talk in working life correspond to reality today?

Twitterissä: @HannaSutela
Kuva: Kari Likonen

The discussion on the employment possibilities of ageing people continues lively. Employers are said to be reluctant to hire aged people, for example, because they fear the costs of disability that may wait around the corner. Or maybe the work efficiency is thought to drop after the 50-year limit.

How justified are these fears?

It is true that according to the statistics of the Finnish Centre for Pensions, people go on disability pension more often from the oldest age groups than from younger age groups. Statistics Finland's Quality of Work Life Survey also shows that among wage and salary earners in working life, precisely the oldest felt that they were more threatened by incapacity to work than others.

On the other hand, it has been reported how long sick leaves and incapacity to work have become more common especially for mental health reasons among young adults in recent years. From the early years of the 2000s, transition to disability pension has increased in the 25 to 34 age group relative to the size of the age group, while it has decreased for those aged 55 to 64 in the corresponding period.

According to the results of the Quality of Work Life Survey, the difference between the age groups in fear of incapacity to work is surprisingly small. In the 2018 survey, 29 per cent of wage and salary earners aged 55 to 64 felt incapacity to work was an uncertainty factor in their work and the share was 26 per cent for those aged 45 to 54. The shares were on level with 15 years earlier. 

However, good one-fifth of those aged 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 also felt that incapacity was a threat in their work in 2018. The share had grown in both age groups compared to the beginning of the millennium: for those aged 25 to 34 it was as much as one-and-a-half times bigger (13% in 2003 vs. 21% in 2018).

Surprisingly small differences by age group are also visible in how many wage and salary earners believe they will, with regard to their health, be able to work in their present occupation in two years' time. In younger 10-year age groups, the share varies between 92 and 96 per cent. On the other hand, 85 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 also believed in 2018 that their health would allow them to continue at work for at least two more years.

And further: according to the Quality of Work Life Survey, the share of wage and salary earners judging their health to be good or fairly good has rather grown in the 2000s in the two oldest 10-year age groups, while it has decreased correspondingly in the two youngest age groups. Around 80 per cent of wage and salary earners aged 55 to 64 and 90 per cent of wage and salary earners aged 25 to 34 considered their health at least fairly good in 2018. 

The results are also interesting because at the turn of the millennium, the employment rate of those aged 55 or over was fairly low, so one can imagine that the healthiest and most motivated representatives of the age group were included among employed persons. In 2018, the employment rate of aged people had risen so that the wage and salary earners in the age group were a more heterogeneous group and better represented all the capable ones in the age group.

The list can be continued: According to the 2018 Quality of Work Life Survey, both wage and salary earners aged 45 to 54 and especially those aged 55 or over suffered from fatigue and lack of energy, tension and irritability, headache, difficulties with concentration or remembering or unwillingness to go to work in the morning clearly less often than young adults.

As fewer employees than before aged 55 or over and more employees aged 25 to 34 suffer from back pain or neck pain, there are currently hardly any age group-specific differences in these symptoms. However, sleeping difficulties were still more common among aged people in 2018 than among younger age groups, as well as aches in feet or hands.

Sickness absences among wage and salary earners aged over 55 are, on the whole, clearly less common than in other age groups, especially when comparing with those aged 25 to 34 or 35 to 44. However, for those aged people who have been absent from work because of illness, absences have lasted longer, on average, than for younger people.

Wage and salary earners aged over 55 are nowadays on the whole more educated and in better condition, appreciate gainful employment as an important area of life considerably more often and are prepared to continue in working life for clearly longer than their peers at the turn of the millennium.

The appreciation of gainful employment and the educational level have also risen among young adults, but they seem to be in worse shape in terms of health and coping today than their peers at the beginning of the 2000s.

These results make me wonder to what extent age talk in today's working life is dominated by the repetition of old stereotypes. To what extent have those taking part in age talk or those inviting people to job interviews updated their views to correspond with today's reality?

Naturally, there are different individuals behind the statistics, averages and percentage distributions presented here as well. There are employees aged 50 to 60 who are in better condition and more motivated to develop in their work than the average 30-somethings. And there are people in their thirties who, despite their short career, have more discretion, understanding of wholes and wisdom than some others close to their retirement age.

The most crucial factors for recruitment should be people's competence, potential and personality – irrespective of sex, age or origin.

If this is not understood, a huge amount of resources will remain unutilised in working life.


The author is Senior Researcher at Statistics Finland's Information and Statistical Services.

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