The social workers who do not want to retire

Social workers who are beyond retirement age often still have plenty to offer the frontline, but recent employment rulings mean the choice isn’t necessarily theirs. By Louise Tickle

Anyone saving, investing or paying into a pension will feel concerned about the state of the world economy, but for people approaching retirement age the worry isn’t about the prospect of penury a couple of decades hence, it’s about how they’ll eat, heat and shelter themselves if prices continue their inexorable rise.

Facing this scenario, retirement from secure, paid work may not seem a sound option. And with people living longer and healthier lives, many won’t want to retire, particularly if, as in a vocational career such as social care, they derive personal satisfaction from their jobs.

Historical age

The problem historically has been that older workers have, in many sectors, had little choice about when to retire – typically between 60 and 65. This has been no different if you’re in local authority employment, but in some places practices are changing.

Wigan’s adult social services employ five people who are past retirement age, and is very glad to have them, says strategic manager Sharon Eid, who cites the example of 68-year-old approved social worker Harry Leckie.

Three years ago, Leckie turned 65, and decided after a three-month break that retirement wasn’t for him.

“I found I wasn’t geared to not working. I needed more structure to my day,” he says. After discovering that Wigan had a shortage of approved social workers, he went for an informal chat and was asked, “do you want to come back?”

Money was an issue too. With just 18 years of pension contributions because social work was his second career, Leckie says he found he didn’t have enough money to retire and pursue the activities he loves.

“I’m still active, skiing and sailing, and I have a son in Australia. So it was to do with finances as well.”

Need for skills

To be allowed to hire him back post-retirement, Wigan had to prove there was a need for Leckie’s skills that couldn’t be met by someone younger. Now he works three days a week solely on statutory cases, and is regularly shadowed by people training to be approved social workers.

What about the strains of the job – is it harder to cope with these as you get older? Leckie doesn’t think so.

“With age, you become calmer. Experience is useful, and because you’ve done so many things so many times, you understand the snags and pitfalls, and can stand back and look at things rather better.

“Of course there are some drawbacks – it is still a stressful job. You still query the decisions you make and always ask yourself if you’ve done the right thing, ethically and correctly, and that’s not easy.

“Stamina levels do fall too, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m fortunate that there’s flexibility in the hours here.”

His manager, Margaret Sullivan, who is 61, is in no doubt that older workers have a great deal to offer. She too came back to work for Wigan Council after retirement, but in her case, it was a planned move into a jobshare with another post-retirement employee. She retired at 60, took a month off, and then came back in July as commissioning manager for Wigan’s mental health services.

“I wanted the flexibility and the financial benefits of retirement but I wanted to use my skills as well,” she says. “I spoke to my senior manager about the possibility: it turned out that a couple of us were retiring at the same time, and she didn’t want to lose us.”

60s benefits

She sees several benefits of working into your 60s: “For the council, I knew the system, and am familiar to staff so there is continuity for them, which is important because I have a commissioning role. For me, I don’t think I’m on the scrap heap.”

And what about recruiting older people into social work? “I wouldn’t have a problem. It was a second career for me that I came to in my 40s, and life experience is crucial in this kind of role.”

At Dudley Council, there is one social worker in her 70s who is employed through an agency. Roy Perrett, divisional manager for children’s services, says “she is one our best”.

Perrett doesn’t have any truck with the idea that an older person might not be physically fit enough for the job.

“Some of our staff are young and fit, and some are young and not so fit. That’s exactly the same for older staff.”

Valuing experience

As co-chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce development policy network, Bernard Walker says that quite apart from the legal perspective, “we should be recognising and valuing experience. One of the things I have always advocated to Adass is looking for mechanisms to keep people in practice and use their experience. Especially since registration, it doesn’t make any sense to build a profession with people with three or four years’ experience who then move on to something else.”

Legally, however, what’s your position if you’re a social worker approaching traditional retirement age and want to carry on at the frontline? Will the recent EU directive outlawing age discrimination in employment protect you from an employer enforcing a mandatory retirement age?

Seemingly not. Despite the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 outlawing age discrimination in employment the UK government has decided to interpret the wording of the EU directive in a manner that allows employers to apply a default retirement age of 65.

The government has decreed that reaching your 65th birthday is sufficient justification in itself for requiring a worker to retire. And in terms of recruitment, if you apply for a job in social work – or any other role – and you’re aged 64 and a half, an employer can refuse to employ you simply on the grounds of your age, even if you’re the best candidate for the job. Age Concern is so angry about the way this affects older people’s employment rights that two years ago it took the government to the European Court of Justice. However, last week the EU advocate general ruled that the compulsory retirement age was not necessarily contrary to EU rules on equality.

Clean slate

At employment solicitors Browne Jacobson, Iain Patterson says that some employers use retirement as a way of starting again with a clean slate and then hire back only the ones they want to keep.

“When retiring an employee at any age, the employer has to serve notice of the intention to retire people six to 12 months in advance of the proposed retirement date. However, under the age of 65, the employer also has to have objective justification for a policy of forcing retirement.

“The employee has the right to request continued working and the regulations impose a process requiring employers to consider the request. Provided that the employer follows the process correctly, it is not at risk of unfair dismissal or age discrimination claims.”

However, he says, an employer might still be at risk if the reason they give is discriminatory on another basis, for instance, saying that it wants to retire a worker because of their health, which might lead to a claim that the reason relates to disability discrimination.

“Although an employer does not need to give a reason for refusing continued working, if it does choose to give a reason, it have to be careful not to fall foul of discrimination law,” says Patterson.

Financial advantages

For individuals who are given the option, there are clearly financial advantages to retiring, drawing your occupational pension and then earning additional income. For service users, there is relief and confidence in being dealt with by someone of long experience. And for social services departments, there are the benefits that come from being able to draw on the expertise that only comes with that experience. But at Dudley Council, Roy Perrett acknowledges that the shift to employing older workers has essentially been driven by local authority need rather than any particularly principled stand on age equality.

“It’s a shame the demand has been driven by providing for a service such as ours with a desperate need for staff,” he says. “And I wonder whether if there wasn’t such a desperate need, older people would be as welcome.”

The Agency View

At health and social care recruitment agency Beresford Blake Thomas, operations director Richard Smith says he has 45 people over retirement age placed in social care and social work roles. There is such demand for them that he wants more older workers on his books.

“The amount of experience and the empathy they have with service users is a real benefit to employers and users,” he says.

“We always struggle to find people with good experience. When local authorities retire their staff, they often recruit them back.”

When candidates are put forward for jobs in local authorities, BBT does not reveal their age, he says. It hasn’t been a problem so far: “If it was, we wouldn’t be able to continue working with that client.”

Published in Community Care 2 October 2008 under the headline ‘But I don’t want to retire’

How do you feel about remaining in social work past the age of 65? Visit CareSpace to join the debate

Also, read Outside Left’s view, “End the fudge on age discrimination”

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