An Aging Workforce: Employment Opportunities and Obstacles


The last decade has witnessed significant changes in the structure of unemployment in the global labour market. This is corroborated by the fact that the global workforce is rapidly aging and the share of people aged 50 and over in the structure of the labour market is increasing. In line with this trend, unemployment issues should be considered as a global problem that cannot be fully resolved at the level of any individual country separately.

The main objective of this paper is to throw some light on the aging workforce and the elderly population’s opportunity to realise their right to work and be treated equally with younger age groups. Hence, the paper simultaneously focuses on the age and gender discrimination of elderly population in terms of their employment prospects. The aim of our research is not only to point out certain stereotypes concerning the elderly labour force, but also to stress that unless preconditions for overcoming these stereotypes are created and employment opportunities are given to this segment of the labour force, full employment as an ultimate goal of global economic policy cannot be achieved. It is in accordance with these considerations that we offer a model to achieve this goal.

1. Introduction

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that the global employment situation is “alarming” and unlikely to improve soon. This can be linked with the fact that the recent global economic crisis has had a big impact on unemployment. This statement can be supported by the fact that the unemployment rate across the eurozone reached 11.7% and 10.7% in EU27 in December 2012.2 According to the same source, the lowest unemployment rates were recorded in Austria (4.3%), Germany and Luxembourg (both 5.3%) and the Netherlands (5.8%), and the highest in Greece (26.8% in October 2012) and Spain (26.1%). This trend is expected to continue in 2014. Some estimations show that the unemployment rate at the eurozone level will continue to rise from 11.7 percent, according to latest figures, to 12.5 percent by early 2014.3 The International Labour Organization estimates that global unemployment will rise by 5.1 million this year to more than 202 million, and by another 3 million in 2014, following a rise of 4.2 million in 2012.4

Between December 2011 and December 2012, the unemployment rate for males increased from 10.5% to 11.6% in the euro area and from 10.0% to 10.7% in the EU27. The female unemployment rate rose from 10.9% to 11.8% in the euro area and from 10.1% to 10.7% in the EU27.

Demographic trends tell us that, by 2050, two billion people will be aged 60 or over and 80 percent of them will be living in developing countries. With the problem of population aging, the labor force aged 60-64 will increase by 55 million between now and 2020.5

Recent forecasts show that the number of elderly people in the world, those over 60, will increase by 39% in the period from 2012 to 2050. This number will be higher in less developed countries than in more developed ones (66% and 33%, respectively) (See Fig.1).

Figure 1: The Labour Force aged 60 and over in thousands (2012-2050)6


In 2010, there were approximately 63 million more women aged 60 or older than there were men of the same age.7 These trends make an impact on the structure of the labour market. In line with this, the labour market has changed markedly in recent decades. Eurostat predicts a possible decrease of about 20.8 million (6.8%) people of working age by 2030.8 Currently, only around 50% of people in the EU are still in employment at the age of 60. Around 40% of women and 10% of men aged 55-59 work part-time in Europe, a slightly higher number than among those aged 50-54.9 In addition, workers who lose their jobs in their fifties and sixties find it increasingly difficult to reactivate themselves again and continue their careers.

Active aging in employment has been a long-standing issue within the European employment strategies, and is a central issue within the recent Europe 2020 strategy. Older people are a valuable and productive economic resource. Increasing employment opportunities among older workers is essential to ensure that the labour market and workforce adapt to meet the needs of an aging population. The need to increase the employment rate of older workers has been translated into quantitative objectives intended to keep those aged 55-64 in work and to raise their average age of exit from the labour market.10

While labour market research is not a new phenomenon, the interest in it is growing as more and more scholars come to understand the significance of and choose interdisciplinary research as a powerful tool for understanding, critique, explanation and change. Based on some research studies, we attempt to add new and important aspects (gender, knowledge, education, entrepreneurship, self-employment and informality, employment and globalization) that the analysis of employment and research puts forward. We argue that there is an urgent need for the formulation of an integrated theory of employment to explain the process by which jobs are created and to explain the contributing role of political, social, technological and economic factors in that process.

2. Theoretical Overview

The varieties of approaches towards employment analysis differ in theory, methodology, as well as in the type of research issues. The peer literature review helps us identify gaps in the form of relevant questions that appear not to have been tackled, and makes it clear where further enquiry should lie.11

In the literature, the main focus has been on the identification of the factors that make a person employable as well as on the concept of employability.12 Research shows that the degree to which workers consider their work as meaningful plays an important role as a factor that promotes the individual employability of older employees. Older workers and their respective conditions in labour markets represent a diverse panorama of realities across the globe.

The level of employment amongst people aged 50 and over is important, not only in terms of achieving full employment, but also to provide for people’s retirement needs.13 With an increasingly aging workforce it is important to address their work prospects as well as the obstacles they face in achieving employment security. People aged 50 and over face a range of specific barriers related to their age. One of the biggest hurdles is age discrimination, based on stereotypes and myths about the limitations of older workers.14 The age discrimination in employment refers to the use of “crude proxies” in personnel decisions, relating to hiring, promotion, retraining, firing and mandatory retirement. The negative consequences of age discrimination in employment can include barriers to recruitment and hiring, diminished conditions of work and employment, limited career development and, in the absence of legislation, diminished employment protection and rights.15 Recent literature cites that age discrimination occurs when preferential decisions are based on age, rather than on an individual’s merits, credentials or job performance.16, 17 Riger and Galligan pointed out noticeable socio-psychological and physiological differences within age discrimination.18 Age discrimination is a moral issue as well as a personal one for everyone who expects more birthdays – but it’s also a serious issue for businesses.19 Research suggests that employers’ attitudes towards older workers are frequently related to misconceptions concerning older workers’ abilities.20A frequent accusation against older applicants is that they are less mentally flexible and less physically active than their youthful competitors.21 Employers judge older workers to be in poor health, resistant to change, uncreative, prone to accidents, disinterested in technological change, and hard to train.22 Further, employers’ attitudes towards elderly workers vary significantly according to company size, employers’ age and gender, with older female employers from smaller companies displaying the most positive attitudes.23 According to a research study, women face age discrimination earlier in life than men do, and the combination of age and gender discrimination is particularly difficult for women to overcome.24 Until recently, research on the redundancy and job search experiences of older workers focused primarily on the early retirement and exit of male workers and tended to neglect the experiences of older women.25 Research also suggests that older women are frequently perceived as both less attractive and less competent than younger women.26, 27 The importance of appearance in seeking or maintaining employment, particularly for females, has been noted in the literature: “When women attain the symbolic meaning of ‘physically unattractive’ (to men) they may be pushed out of visible areas or forced into retirement regardless of their skills”.28 Women who have chosen clerical, secretarial or reception work may be especially liable to discrimination during the later part of their working lives as they work within female-dominated occupations where ageism and sexism frequently combine to create the ‘double jeopardy’ of ‘gendered ageism’.29 In countries where unemployment is low, with fewer applicants searching for a job, employers have fewer opportunities to discard applicants simply on the basis of some arbitrary characteristics such as gender and age.30

There is a lot of literature on women’s employment which has been applied to comparative research. This ranges from concepts of patriarchy to debates in Human Capital and segmented labour market theory. Rubery has argued that applying a societal perspective to women’s employment means that we need to understand the way in which the system of industrial labour market and family organization interrelate and also the role of the society’s political and social values in maintaining these relationships before we could expect to make sense of the differences between countries in the position of women.31 Hers and similar studies for the most part are blind to taking into account many important factors in their research. This issue has to be paid special attention to, having in mind that the problem of discrimination both in the employment of the female labour force and in their promotion at work is still far from being solved.

As many scholars have pointed out, male-oriented ideologies often prevent adequate recognition of female contributions and, in some instances, do limit their participation.32, 33, 34 In some countries, women are subjected to negative stereotypes that in turn lead to their being deprived of resources thus forcing them into the informal sector.35 The World Conference on Ageing held in Madrid in 2002 endorsed a life course approach to well-being in old age which is especially important for women “as they face obstacles throughout life with a cumulative effect on their social, economic, physical and psychological well-being in their later years”.36 Those older women who grew up when the male breadwinner and female carer model of gender relationships were predominant may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of gendered ageism within the workplace. Such women were often forced to leave school with limited qualifications, entering traditional female occupations and either withdrawing from the labour force or working part-time whilst their children were young.37

However, the finding from more than 100 research investigations is that there is no significant difference between the job performance of men and women, nor older and younger workers. In this context, some labour market economists are already beginning to re-examine their assumptions that the preference for younger workers is economically rational.38

Despite a lot of literature in the area of age discrimination, limited research has been conducted in the area of age discrimination in employment against older adults, those between the ages of 55 and 64. In addition, there has been little, if any, consideration of the quality of jobs and working conditions in policy discussions and the debate surrounding the issue of extending working life.39

Our own work in this area differs to some extent in these respects from some new research in the field of employment that has a partial theoretical approach to the topic. The holistic and integrated approach has a strongly grounded rationale for supporting employment theory and practice.40


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