By Professor Jill Manthorpe
You would have to have your head in a bag not to realise that populations are ageing, and consequently, the government wants people to work longer and to retire later.
For social workers, as with other professionals, this may mean that it will no longer be exceptional to be working into one’s late 60s or 70s, but more often the norm. In many workplaces, older workers may experience subtle or not so subtle ageism and find negative age stereotypes in the workplace.
What we don’t know is if these issues are prominent in social work. It may be that experience and maturity are valued in this profession and by its partners or public.
We think it is important to ask what is happening among the profession about this subject. Are there effective HR practices in their employing agencies which mean that policies are being translated into action around age-friendly employment?
What works for older social workers
We already have a good evidence base about social work and disability and employers’ audits of staff wellbeing. But we don’t know what works well for older social workers in terms of supporting them and what might best promote their physical or mental health. A life-course perspective is required as employer support is also critical at earlier points in one’s career including maternity and paternity policies and more recently, response to evidence about the impact of the menopause on wellbeing with work-related consequences.
There is a lot of data about social workers working for local councils that details their age and how long they have worked in the profession. But we lack detail of personal experiences and particularly individuals’ thoughts around their own future working lives.
Your voice heard: Take part in our survey on the health and wellbeing of social workers at various stages in their careers
Ulster University, with support from Community Care, is today launching pioneering research into the longer-term picture of the social work workforce in a time of changing employment conditions.
Led by Dr Paula McFadden, senior lecturer in social work at Ulster University, the research starts with a short survey of the social worker population to capture the voice of social workers and how they feel about their work future and to ask some critical questions about this topic.
The study aims to inform on social workers’ attitudes to ageing at work and their health and wellbeing, alongside home and work interaction. It will look to identify intentions to leave, to inform what kind of accommodations are or should be put in place.
The survey will be completely anonymous so your views or indeed details of your circumstances will neither be attributed or shared on an individual basis. It is vital that we get your views as those working in the profession to understand the potential concerns and measures needed to make social workers want to stay in the profession.
How do those in their forties feel about working until 68 years old? Do those nearing 60-65 plan to retire later as the state pension age increases, or are they not changing their plans? Are social workers attracted to changing their working life by moving jobs, decreasing their hours or going part-time? What makes it possible for some to leave the profession before pension age? Might anything be enticing older social workers to return to the profession?
The changes amid local councils and other social work employers have been substantial in many areas but their effects are not fully understood. We do not know, for example, if social workers are well-acquainted with their HR colleagues or how they access information about possible changes around retirement.
Do they feel that corporate or outsourced HR advice is accessible in person or do they find internet-based advice is quick and responsive? Do people contact HR before or after talking to their supervisors or managers? Do they think central HR advisors understand the job of a social worker and do they think this understanding matters?
Despite social workers’ expertise in social care we lack information about how caring responsibilities are impacting on social workers and their decisions around employment. Do they go to their HR colleagues for advice on working while caring or act independently? Do the stresses of the job mean that options to leave work are taken up rapidly? Are any social workers staying put to make up for gaps in their pension contributions?
Changing job demands
Our research aims to find out how social workers perceive their jobs and changing job demands, and how they want to be supported throughout their careers. We know older social workers are in the minority, but this is unlikely to be the case for long due to ageing demographics and population projection.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, by 2046, people aged 65 and older will make up 24.7 percent of the UK´s population, up from 18 percent in 2016. Furthermore, the average age of the working-age population (those aged 16-64) will increase and the size of this group will decrease relative to the older age group.
Now is the time to hear from social workers about the wider workplace influences on their decision making and the sources of advice they find helpful. Our proposed research is happening at a time when HR and employment relationships are changing, with some trying to become better tuned to the needs of older workers.
Understanding social work perspectives on these will be invaluable to the profession, employers, HR advisors and other parts of the workforce to inform future thinking and perhaps action into maintaining the health, wellbeing and longevity of the workforce.
Jill Manthorpe is director of the social care workforce research unit at Kings College London