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Working longer does not have to be a punishment
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Research

Working longer does not have to be a punishment

We have to work longer to keep pensions affordable. But how do we do that without compromising on quality of life or health?

8 minutes
08 April 2021

At age 77 Mick Jagger prances across the stage like a foal, 85-year-old Woody Allen still books a film every year and Winston Churchill is known to have served in the British Parliament until he was 89. Consoling examples, if you know that we all have to work a little longer to keep our pensions funded. Our researchers looked at how we can work longer without compromising on quality of life or health.

Our life expectancy is steadily increasing, which is of course good news. But now that the well-represented baby boom generation is reaching retirement age, several questions have also arisen. Can we keep our social security system funded? Will the retirement age continue to rise? And can younger generations still count on a pension? We asked Professor of Occupational Medicine Lode Godderis. Together with his colleagues at the Metaforum think tank, he took a closer look at the pension issue.

“In Belgium we work with a distribution system,” explains Professor Godderis. “That means that the current generation of workers pays for those who are retired. This system is now under pressure due to the increasing number of retirees and the aging population. We may see problems with the affordability of our pension system until 2040. There are already additional measures in place, such as pension savings, but in order to continue to provide a basic amount we need to reconsider that system. One option could be to lower pensions, but the fact is they’re already fairly low in Belgium. The only alternative is that everyone works longer.”

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Demanding work

The researchers argue for a pension scheme with a points system that doesn’t look at age, but rather at the number of years worked and the particular onus of a profession. For example, anyone who has been in a demanding profession for a number of years would collect more points, which would then play a role in determining your pension amount or the age at which you can retire.

“There are several ways to define a ‘demanding job’,” says Godderis. “But there’s no unequivocal answer. For example, you could look at life expectancy. This is a lot lower for people from low socio-economic classes, and these are often also people who perform physically demanding professions such as construction workers or longshoremen. But the number of years that someone can continue to perform their job in a healthy way can also be a measure. And mentally demanding professions score poorly on that count; teachers or care givers, for example, often have a high life expectancy.”

“There’s something to be said for both approaches, but in practice you’re going to have to look at it on a case by case basis. You have to determine something like this in consultation with employers and trade unions, but also with experts who can offer clarification and oversee the situation. You can’t leave everything to the social partners, because then you run the risk that every profession will be recognised as a demanding profession just because it’s financially appealing or offers other benefits. So there has to be a certain margin for negotiation within which you can reach a decision.”

Concluded agreements should be reviewed over time, says Godderis. “Whether a job is difficult or not can change. Construction worker is a physically demanding job, but you can no longer compare the situation today with that of twenty years ago. Construction is done in a completely different way and technological innovations have made the work less arduous. It might not even be a demanding job in ten years' time. Conversely, you have jobs that are now more demanding mentally than they were before. For example, due to the advent of digitisation and the smartphone, you’re continuously in reach and it’s more difficult to decompress.”

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Flexible

Of course, it also comes down to keeping people working longer. Unlike in many countries abroad, there is a great deal of untapped labour potential in Belgium. “A significant part of the 50+ crowd is on early retirement. Sometimes it’s for health reasons, but more often because it’s financially more beneficial to leave early than to continue working. So we’re left with a large group that could still be working happily both physically and mentally but for whom it’s discouraged. And this whilst research shows that working under good conditions contributes to health, and we need that manpower to make pensions affordable. We therefore want to turn that system around and financially encourage people to work longer.”

According to Godderis, this should be done as flexibly as possible. “For someone with a physically demanding profession – think of masons, carpenters or concrete workers – it is of course not easy to work until 67, but that doesn’t mean that early retirement is the only solution. Maybe you can could retrain people towards the end of their career and guide them to a lighter job, so that they have a better pension at the end of the journey.”

“Such a switch might not only be useful for demanding professions. You can't think fixedly about careers. Interests can also change, and if everyone works longer, we have to look at work in a different way. You can’t work very flat out from the start and maintain that rhythm until you are seventy. There are also times in life when you’re busy on a personal level, when you have to take care of young children or sick parents, for example. Perhaps it’s an option to build in occasional ‘rest breaks’: times when someone works a little less, and saves fewer ‘work points’, without losing too many accrued rights.”

Telework can contribute to longer and healthier working, but there, too, you have to look for a balance.

Stigma

According to Godderis, we need to also get rid of the stigma attached to older employees. “It’s still too often imagined that employees are exhausted at a certain age, that they’re no longer able or willing to participate. That’s not correct, but employees who are confronted with such a stigma or who are pushed into that role might eventually behave in such a manner.”

“The current generation of people in their fifties and sixties hasn’t had it easy,” says Godderis. “A lot has been digitised in a short time, and they’ve often seen the content of their job change drastically. Employers would therefore do well to invest heavily in training and guidance. At the same time, not everyone has to perform exactly the same range of duties. Younger employees will find their way more easily in digital environments, but older employees have more years of experience behind them and might see relationships or connections more quickly. You can better use them in coaching or guidance. You have to evolve into tailor-made jobs.”

We’re constantly hearing that we have to work longer, but there are also voices in favour of introducing a 30-hour week. In Sweden, there’s been plenty of experimentation on that front. “These are interesting thought exercises, but you might also wonder whether the workload is reduced proportionally. We’re already seeing that those who suddenly start working four-fifths time often continue to do the same amount of work as a full-time worker. And someone working half-time doesn't necessarily experience less mental pressure. For example, the partner expects you to take care of a larger part of the household, or to take care of the children more often. An argument in favour of such a 30-hour week is that those who work fewer hours work fresher, with more concentration and more productivity. Those who work eight hours a day don’t necessarily do more work than someone who works six hours.”

You can’t leave everything to social partners, because then you run the risk that every profession will be recognised as a demanding profession.

Healthy balance

Since the corona crisis a large part of the population has become acquainted with teleworking, and Godderis thinks that that does offer future possibilities. For example, it can contribute to working healthier longer. “People with mild health problems often drop out because just getting to the workplace becomes more difficult. They could continue to work via teleworking. You’re seeing now that a lot of people are obliged to work from home. If you have a cold or feel the flu coming on, you often continue to telecommute, whilst in other circumstances you’d probably get a doctor’s note.”

“You also save time,” says Godderis. “The hours you save commuting can be spent on other things. Although there is a risk that you won’t let go of work as easily and that you’ll spend the time you otherwise spend on the train or in the car in front of your work laptop. So we have to find a healthy balance between teleworking and working in the office. Concentrated writing on a research paper or dossier may work better at home, whilst meetings are something both preferred and performed better at the office, even if only for social contact with your colleagues.”

“’Healthy balance’ is the key concept in the whole discussion,” Godderis concludes. “Give people enough breathing space throughout their career, give them the opportunity to define their job themselves where possible, and ensure a good balance between work and private life. That way work longer no longer has to be a punishment.”

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