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Newsletters > November 2011 > Feedback from the PEOPLE Conference in Stockholm
08/11/11
Feedback on the PEOPLE International Conference held in Stockholm on 15 Septermber 2011 – by UK regional expert Nick Wilson

As the author of the specification for the PEOPLE Silver Economy theme, I had previously made a short presentation at the launch of the PEOPLE programme in Seville. So I was very pleased to be invited to speak again at this conference in the lead-up to the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012.

The social, economic and political case

A number of speakers made the case for drawing more effectively on older people (aged 50 plus) as economic assets, rather than seeing them primarily as dependants and as a drain on public services. The key statistic was that today's average dependency ratio (working age to pensionable age) of 4:1 would fall to 2:1 by 2060.

But the issue is with us now. The fact that people are living longer already means that at age 60 a person may expect to spend as much as a third of their life in ‘retirement'. This is very different to what the architects of our pension systems had planned for when many people would have been expected to die before being able to claim a pension. We heard that Swedish state pensions were funded from a finite pension fund: the choice lay between many people working longer or lower pension payments for all.

Speakers also made the point that work – or, rather, good work – benefits people's health and well-being. Older people's contribution to society can take the form of unpaid volunteering as well as paid work. Many older people are contributing by caring for grandchildren, so allowing the parents to make a greater economic contribution. Also, older people's care for elderly relatives leads to massive savings in welfare budgets.

Self-employment as an option: the Silver Academy experience

A strong case was therefore made for drawing more effectively on the knowledge, skills and expertise of older workers. The conference then focused on practical ways of making this happen. This included a series of presentations from the Silver Academy project which formed part of the PEOPLE programme. These presentations showed the potential for unemployed older workers to be helped to consider setting up their own business as a way back into paid work. We heard about the practical experimentation which had taken place in the UK and Poland, complemented by research activity by the project's Spanish partners.

The point was strongly made that the self-employment should be seen as only part of the solution. It might be right for some people – including those who had not originally considered it – but not for everyone. But there could be wider benefits from people ‘developing enterprising mind-sets' even if they did not ultimately follow the self-employment path. The key was coaching, not training of a traditional kind, enabling participants to draw upon each other's experience, knowledge and skills. From around 100 UK participants, 20 had started new businesses to date and a further 13 had boosted the performance of their existing businesses. Many participants were continuing to support each other through a self-sustaining network and website and additional new businesses may be set up partly as a result of this.

Support to businesses and older workers: good practice examples

Earlier, we had heard from Barbro Skoglund, a Swedish expert on supporting employers to make better use of older workers. She and her partner had drawn on the Finnish Work Ability model, adapting it in ways that suited Swedish employers and employees. Her approach was to promote ‘age awareness leadership'. This required top management commitment and training of middle managers and supervisors. Managers are pragmatic and can be persuaded by evidence based business cases that more effective age management leads to business benefits. For example Vattenfall, a major energy company, had reported increased productivity and profitability as well as greater employee satisfaction.

I then described some of the South East of England's initiatives over a ten year period. This had begun with the setting up of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce (CROW) and this was followed by the 40–70 Tomorrow's Workforce programme. The eight projects in this programme, partly resourced from the European Social Fund, had supported 3,500 older workers and 500 employers. The common feature of the projects was that they offered tailored (‘differentiated') support suited to the needs of older workers and of employers who might be a good source of recruitment. The most successful projects had achieved placement rates of up to 60% by taking a ‘business first' approach, addressing employers' requirements and the problems they experience in dealing with public employment services as the starting point for helping older people back into work. The success of the 40–70 Tomorrow's Workforce programme had encouraged the UK government to commission good practice guidance (http://www.50plusworks.com/site-map/ ) for organisations delivering its main national Work Programme. This includes the ‘business first' approach.

The Silver Academy has since added greatly to our knowledge about self-employment as an option and our next focus will be increasing age awareness amongst employers and particularly small and medium enterprises (SME's). The South East England Forum on Ageing (SEEFA) and the Silver Academy partners hope to attract funding for a Business Age project, starting in 2012. This will include further development of the business case for employers, ‘viral marketing' using existing business communication channels and a training and development programme for SME managers. I invited partners from other EU Regions to link up with us if they are interested in this initiative ( ).

Policy recommendations

Experience in the South East of England led us to make two policy recommendations on the Silver Economy which I referred to at the end of my presentation:

1. That EU Member State governments consider issuing guidance about differentiated forms of employment support for older workers, adapted to meet their expectations and needs.

2. That the European Commission, as part of the European Year 2012, launch a ‘Business Age' programme to make employers aware of the benefits of employing older workers. Actions within this programme might include:

· Raising employer age awareness and promoting cultural change within enterprises.

· Promoting good ‘age management' practices through training, development and support for managers.

These will be among the recommendations in the Steering Committee's report on policy for the PEOPLE programme. I was also delighted that Anne-Sophie Parent, Secretary General of AGE Platform Europe, responded favourably to them at the conference and said she would take them back to the Commission and to BUSINESSEUROPE.