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working longer

The Problem of working longer

There is panic in the streets of Belgium. The new government wants people in Belgium to work longer. Until the age of 67. The legal retirement has been 65 but hardly anyone works until that age. As a matter of fact the average retirement age is still below 60. That is an amazingly low age. Careers in Belgium are also among the shortest in Europe: 32 years. But with the increasing life expectancy, people live longer on their (state) pension. From a budgetary perspective alone, this is not sustainable.
The new retirement age is not the most important aspect of the reform. People will have to work longer and the question is how they will do that. The other question is how organizations will create the context for people to work longer. To some readers of this might sound weird. Why do people stop working so early? Why would it be difficult to work until the age of 67? How come some countries do not have this problem.
The problem is not that we have to work longer. The problem is that we do not work long enough.

Social Unrest expected

I expect protests in Belgium. In 2005 there was a minimal reform of the early retirement schemes. The country was struck by a wave of strikes and union actions. This reform is much more fundamental and within hours after the the decision, there was protest. Some people think the idea of working longer is simply outrageous. These are some of the arguments:

  • Working longer will exacerbate the problem of youth unemployment;
  • People are unable to work longer given the high levels of stress;
  • There are too many difficult jobs that do not allow for a long career;
  • The government does not respect the social bargaining process;
  • It’s unfair to ask people to work longer because they they have a right to to ending their career at 55, 58, 60, 62, … Many people have done this before them. It’s almost a generational injustice.

The new government plans are unacceptable for the unions (there are 3 ideologically inspired unions: liberal, socialist and christian). Back in 2005 they took to the streets because the government at that time launched a “generational pact”, slightly altering the labour market. The unions took to the streets in a disproportional display of power. Now, the changes are more fundamental so they have to act, even if it were only to show their members that they defend them. But my question is: what’s the alternative? Can we go on and allow people to live on a pension during 30 years? Is it defendable to send people home in a  passive state and consume scarce government budgets? Is it fair to the generations of the future who have to carry the weight for ever-increasing numbers of people that are not active and benefit from a pension ? I don’t think so.  These questions are not always relevant in a context of social bargaining, but they are the right ones.

Societal Change

The reason for that unrest is that we are facing a societal change. During decades people told us that working longer is a problem. That we have the right to stop to enjoy our lives. The view of career was sequential: we invest through studies, then we work for a living, and retirement comes as a reward or a relief. This is fundamentally wrong. And now it’s time to change that mentality and wake up to reality (no pun intended). And this is threatening to many.
People who think nothing should ever change are sedated by satisfaction, paralyzed by fear or frozen by “entitlementitis”. To think that nothing has to change is a serious form of ostracism. The debate about working longer is not new. It has been around for at least two decades. But we have failed to act. We knew years ago that there would be a budgetary problem. We knew two decades ago that the middle generation of that time would be the new “lost” generation of today if we did nothing. And we did nothing. Or if we did something, we did not enough.

People who think nothing should ever change are sedated by satisfaction, paralyzed by fear or frozen by “entitlementitis”

Focus on Employability

The question is if working longer is good for us. We will get into that in a later blog post. But it’s not that people are in general unable to work longer. Or that working longer is per se unhealthy. We need to look beyond the limitations of our imagination and education and check what is happening in other countries (like Sweden) and in certain companies. Moreover we need to focus on the right variable, which is not related to age. That variable is (sustainable) employability.

  • Employability, and not employment should be the focus. If we focus on employment we glue people to their chairs. If we focus on employability, we make sure that they are mobile, agile, eager to learn and move on. A job becomes a source of employability instead of a source of only income.
  • Countries where people work longer do not have higher levels of youth unemployment. There is no causal effect. The capacity to create jobs is probably more determining for labour market participation. But in countries who do not have enough jobs available, there is an almost logical yet perverse shift of employment from the more expensive older workforce towards the cheaper younger workforce. This expulsion of older workers was justified because it allegedly favored the employment of the younger. This mechanism is not a law of nature. A company has the choice to go for rejuvenation programs (a euphemism for labor cost reduction) or to find ways to integrate the older workforce.
  • The model of flexicurity offers a model of how a labour-market can work without creating too much dependencies. This model has been under debate in countries like Belgium but there has not been much enthusiasm for it.
  • People should learn at early ages to manage their career (and their life). They should develop career competencies. One of the most important career competencies is the ability to learn. People should focus not on a status-quo but on continuous learning. Learning new things within a job or changing jobs increases the chances one has in the future. People that are a one-trick-pony with no learning skills are at peril.
  • We need to understand the importance of job quality for sustainable employability. Repetitive work should be avoided. Work without autonomy, social support and a too high workload is not a goog idea. But although workers report satisfaction with their job, they report a low quality of work. This paradox indicates that people are willing to accept a low quality job in exchange for other, more extrinsic things like convenience, income, job security.

Difficulties ahead

Unions could save themselves the trouble of taking to the streets. I do understand that these manifestations are used as a way to take away the pressure and to canalize anger. It’s a ritual. But, we should sit together and work out a structural way to move on together. I have pleaded several times for a kind of pact that aims at restoring our competitiveness as a country and improves our chances to win in a very global and competitive market. Working longer is part of that pact. It’s not by being complacent and by focussing on what has been possible in the past that we will move forward. Changing this will take a lot of effort and courage. But I believe it’s the only way. And yes, there are difficulties ahead. Cultural, budgetary and technical issues will make it hard to get there (and to stay there). But if it’s really a pact we will start from what our country needs, and not from what we want. Like a sunflower that adapts to the sunlight, we need to adapt. Let’s get rid of the paralysis, the sedation or the frozenness. And let’s overcome the difficulties of working longer together.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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