09/12/2013 09:44 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Raising State Pension Ages - We Have to Change Work First!

George Osborne's announcement of further changes to the state pension age (SPA) confirms what we already assumed. By the mid 2030s SPA will be 68. Today's teenagers will wait until 70 for their pensions - who knows, maybe later? But politicians are increasingly concerned not just about getting us to postpone retirement but to live more healthily as we age so that we can continue working up to pensionable age. Age, work and health are on the agenda like never before.

As always there is an economic angle. 159,000 people in Europe die each year as a result of a work related illness. Half of older workers leave work before reaching their expected retirement ages which costs a calculated total of £490 billion to EU member states in lost production and welfare benefits. The UK's SPA changes will save £400 billion over 50 years but this would be dwarfed by the savings of everyone working up to their present state pension ages.

But continued working demands better working practices and life-style approaches to ensure people have the capacity to work in later life. In our efforts to encourage more employers to adopt good workplace practices TAEN is supporting the USA based AARP's Best Employers International Award (Organisations with a good story to tell about how they are rising to the challenge should think about applying.)

One problem is that ageing workers are widely seen as "a burden" with the focus of attention being on their chronological ages rather than their work capacity (or, to use an increasingly recognised concept, their work-ability) which can vary enormously from worker to worker of the same ages.

While the term sounds wooden to British ears, "work-ability" seems to offer a helpful paradigm. In discourse about the ageing workforce in European meetings, it is used to capture the idea that successful working at any age demands a balance between the resources and feelings of individuals on one hand and the demands which the job makes of them on the other. We need to learn from this.

Get the balance right and you have good work-ability, from whence it is possible to consider an extension of working life - if public policy demands it. Get it wrong and you can have poor and declining work ability, with the obvious consequence that people leave the work force early for a whole variety of reasons.

Work-ability depends on the fit of individuals' total personal resources with the jobs they do. Into the mix must go the health and well-being of the individual worker, his competencies, skills and qualifications, the design of the job, the working environment, the management style and culture of the organisation and of course the position of the individual in society and his or her own community.

All of these factors have been displayed in a simple model (the "work-ability house") and a measure - the so called work-ability index (WAI) - devised to guide employers, policy makers and practitioners alike. Significantly research reveals that the seeming relentless decline of work-ability as we age can in fact be arrested or even reversed by appropriate "interventions." These might include improving working patterns, redesigning workplaces, encouraging healthier life-styles, re-skilling workers throughout their careers and so on. Maintaining work and well being by such life course approaches is the logical response to workforce ageing and should precede the stick of raising the SPA.

It is worrying that our Government is determined to raise the state pension age for all without regard to the huge inequalities of work-ability that exist across the workforce. Surely this blunt weapon will result in many casualties. No wonder teachers and others in high stress jobs are claiming that "sixty eight is too late." It is a good slogan but, I suggest, there needs to be a more visionary angle in terms of changed attitudes, different working patterns, the restructuring of careers and much more.

In the workforce as a whole, there is world of difference between interesting, or sedentary work and jobs which are gruelling, physically demanding, or have a tough working environment. These and many others are intrinsically unsustainable over an extended working life. If we are to work longer we simply must start to look at the sustainability of jobs and the work-ability of job holders. People will need to be engaged in the process of re-engineering their jobs and working conditions for a longer work-life. If we can do this convincingly and collaboratively, pushing up state pension ages may make sense. Until then, I am afraid, the Chancellor's announcement will be a source of dreadful hardship as more of our people will be unable to work and too young to draw their pensions.