Baby Boomers – Fit for the future

By 2020 a third of British workers will be aged over fifty. That’s one of the inescapable conclusions of the Chief Medical Officers latest report ‘Baby Boomers: Fit for the Future.’ As the title suggests this report focuses on the generation born after the Second World War, commonly known as baby boomers.

Now aged between fifty and seventy this generation has seen fantastic improvements in technology and levels of health care leading to increased longevity expectations. However baby boomers also have to face certain challenges including the rising retirement age and the fact that a third of this generation is seen as obese.

Whilst obesity brings its own problems, so too does the effect of having to manage ongoing health issues whilst remaining in the workforce. According to the report 42% of workers aged between fifty and sixty-four are coping in work with one ongoing medical condition whilst 24% have more than one. In addition, nearly 50% of those who stop work in the five years leading up to retirement age do so because of a chronic health condition.

One interesting statistic to arise from the report was that workers aged over fifty-five years report the highest rates of illness caused or made worse by their work. Admittedly some of these relate to previous working practices; for example over half the melanomas occurring within the baby boomer age group could have been prevented had measures being taken to reduce the exposure for outdoor workers. The report also indicates that 2500 lung and breast cancer cases could be prevented each year by controlling exposure to workplace hazards.

So does that mean that people should be looking to retire earlier? Absolutely not says the report which highlights the social and physical benefits of remaining physically and mentally active. Admittedly it’s a bit of a swings and roundabouts conundrum. On the one hand a transition towards retirement has been associated with a reduction in fatigue and stress levels alongside a reduced use of antidepressants. On the other hand, the continued social engagement found through employment is believed to delay the onset of cognitive decline.

However employers may need to revisit their working practices in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of baby boomers in the workforce. This may include a move towards offering flexible or part-time working or even simply accepting that older workers may require additional time off to manage ongoing conditions. In this age group these include musculoskeletal problems (21%), circulatory complaints (17%) and depression and anxiety (8%).

The report’s authors indicate that this move towards more flexible working practices is already taking place with 26% of UK workers aged over fifty working part-time and 22% working flexibly. In addition this age group is more likely to be self-employed than any other age group with two million people aged over fifty working for themselves.

With greater understanding for employers allied to appropriate interventions from the health sector should be possible for the majority of people to continue to work into later life. For example, musculoskeletal problems could be mitigated by a combination of greater attention to working conditions including the appropriate positioning of desks and orthopaedic chairs alongside the availability of physiotherapy and other health practices as required.

Some health measures such as tackling obesity may be down to individuals. As the chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally C Davies, comments in her introduction to the report “The choices we make every day will have an impact on how we age.”  However she also highlights the part which employers have to play in helping people to stay in work and reap the benefits which an active and social later life can bring.