, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 421–425

Older workers: a suitable case for circles?


    • Kingston Business SchoolKingston University
  • Anne Inga Hilsen
    • Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research
Open Forum

DOI: 10.1007/s00146-012-0376-4

Cite this article as:
Ennals, R. & Hilsen, A.I. AI & Soc (2012) 27: 421. doi:10.1007/s00146-012-0376-4


The article considers relations between the generations, with particular attention given to older workers, who also face the pressures of responsibilities to both parents and children. The situations in Norway and the UK are compared. The case is made for support structures, such as senior quality circles, at the threshold between employment and retirement.


Intergenerational relationsLife courseQuality circlesSeniorsSenior quality circlesTransitions

1 Introduction

Older workers are “the jam in the intergenerational sandwich.” They have a life beyond work: they are not simply isolated individuals, celebrating their affluence by comparison with earlier generations (Marmot 2004; Wilkinson and Pickett 2010). They often retain responsibilities for their children, who may be unable to leave home and be economically self-sufficient (Willetts 2010). Frequently, they have to care for elderly and infirm relations, who live for decades after retirement. Mooney et al. (2002) found that, for women, informal care may influence early retirement. In addition to informal care of elderly relatives, “middle-aged carers, on the other hand, might simultaneously be shouldering the responsibility to care for their own (grand-) children” (Hoffmann and Rodrigues 2010: 10). This defines them as the sandwich generation or the pivot generation (Mooney et al. 2002), or “the jam in the intergenerational sandwich.”

In many cases, in a period of economic difficulties, older workers have lost control over their own personal working lives (Karasek and Theorell 1990), and they face uncertainty. They are in transition, between the worlds of work and retirement, with the boundaries being changed by government. They have often felt forgotten, by government and by other groups in society.

With increased life expectancy, age does not have to be regarded simply as a medical problem (Ilmarinen and Rantanen 1999; Ilmarinen 2006). Active ageing regards experience and maturity as vital, resulting in skill and tacit knowledge, exercised by individuals and collectively, which are greatly valued by organisations (Hilsen and Ennals 2005, 2009). Handled creatively, this is a new and unique resource. Society needs to be reconfigured by its members, including older members (Augustinaitis et al. 2009; Baily 2009; Berglund 2009).

Although the detailed pattern of demographic change is not the same in each country, across Northern Europe there is widespread and growing concern about the situation of older workers, with the lead taken from Finland and Sweden (Kilbom 1999). Industries have been obliged to re-organise, redesigning jobs, and changing policies and practice on recruitment and retention (Ennals 1999, 2000, 2001). The European Union has a stated aim of raising employment rates for older workers, ensuring more people work longer. In Norway, the Tripartite Agreement on a more inclusive work life (the IA-agreement) seeks to raise the real retirement age, postponing retirement through efforts at the national and enterprise level. In the UK, the government has announced an end to a rigid retirement age and a steady increase in the age at which a retirement pension will be paid.

2 Norway

2.1 Seniors

In Norway, the Centre for Senior Policy has concentrated on these issues for a number of years and has developed the concept of “seniors,” with a set of policy initiatives whose impacts have been monitored. A long-term approach can be taken to supporting economic and social development, preparing for Norwegian working life and communities in the time after Norwegian “peak oil.” State control of oil and gas has ensured a sustained income stream, financing public services and investment. The political and economic environment has been stable, with high levels of employment.

Extending working life, together with effective integration of migrant workers, offers ways forward. In spite of extensive efforts to prolong working careers in Norway, there are challenges for older workers. One challenge might be elderly parents making claims on their working children.

2.2 Care

In many countries, informal care is an expected and necessary part of the caring for the elderly. This is the case even in countries with a well-developed welfare state with (fairly) good access to professional care, like Norway. Older workers, seniors, often experience demands on their time from elderly parents or other relatives. Informal care tends to be given by “women of working age” (Hoffmann and Rodrigues 2010: 4). Research is divided on the effect of such demand for care. Both Gautun and Hagen (2010) and Midtsundstad (2009) found little effect on retirement patterns. In fact, Midtsundstad (Ibid.) found that seniors ranked it as number 15 of 15 possible reasons for choosing early retirement. On the other hand, a study of attitudes towards voluntary early retirement among employed women 50+ found that responsibility for caring for elderly relatives motivated a wish for early retirement for 60.6% of the respondents (Holte and Hilsen 2010). Interestingly, a third of the informants (33.7%) claimed not to be affected, and 5.7% said it motivated them to work longer.

Hoffmann and Rodrigues (2010: 2) point out that caring for an elderly parent is more frequent in Northern Europe (based on EU statistics), headed by Finland where as many as 20% of the population (15+) are providing informal care to a non-resident relative (in 1999). In contrast, less than 5% in Italy, Portugal, and Spain report the same, while an almost equal number report providing care to a co-resident relative, compared to approximately 1% in Finland. Thus, care provided seems to be more intensive in Southern Europe while more frequent in Northern Europe (Ibid.).

The extent of care responsibilities, on the other hand, most likely depends on welfare system and organisation of care for the elderly in each country. In countries as Norway, where the healthcare services are well developed and mainly publicly financed, the care burden on family members might be small and only a supplement to public care. In countries where care for the elderly is more privatised, including the UK, this situation will be different and family members may be the main care providers for those not able to afford private care.

Even the jam sandwich generation will be under different pressures, dependent on national welfare state systems. Even if care obligations do not motivate early retirement, as the Norwegian experiences seem to indicate that they do not (Gautun and Hagen 2010), the pressure on the jam sandwich generation is felt. According to Gautun and Hagen (Ibid.: 13), 57 per cent experienced situations where it was difficult to combine care responsibilities and work.

2.3 Interventions

Today in Norway, a wide range of measures at the enterprise level, such as bonuses to postpone retirement, reduced workload for older workers without loss of payment, lifelong learning initiatives, re-organisation of work to fit the needs of older workers, and alternative careers, are being extensively used to prevent early retirement.

Although a wide range of measures are used, and evaluated, there are few measures particularly aimed at alleviating the intergenerational squeeze, the “jam” situation. An insurance company offers their senior workers paid leave of absence to care for elderly sick parents, on the same scale as the (Norwegian) entitlement to leave of absence, when necessary to attend a sick child. The Work Environment Act entitles employees to “a maximum of 10 days leave of absence per calendar year, or a maximum of 15 days if the employee has two or more children in his or her care” (Work Environment Act, §12-9, 2). In addition, the Act states that “an employee who takes care of close relatives in the home in the terminal stage shall be entitled to 20 days leave of absence to take care of the individual patient” (Sect. 12-10. Care of close relatives). The insurance company launched their additional leave for caring for elderly sick parents as one of several measures to postpone retirement for their employees (Steinum et al. 2007).

The recent concept, from the UK, of Older Workers being “the jam in the intergenerational sandwich” opens a new discussion. By focusing on this challenge, we will discuss what kind of measures are currently being used, based on evaluations of active ageing efforts in Norway, and what measures are needed to address the “jam” situation.

3 UK

3.1 Perfect storm

In the UK, alternative approaches to active age are now being explored, but in political and economic circumstances which have been described as a “perfect storm,” linked to the credit crunch and global economic crisis. Whereas most commentators would argue that the crisis arose from the unregulated behaviour of banks, and the collapse of financial markets, the cost is to be paid, in the UK, by workers in the public sector and by the old. As public expenditure is to be cut, older workers find themselves, again, as the “jam in the sandwich.”

There is an established concern for the elderly in the UK, but older workers have received little attention. Efforts have been hampered by limited current foundations of research on older workers (Weyman 2009). The lack of evidence has been presented as a reason for delaying policy interventions concerning older workers. However, this stems from government having long been reluctant to ask the necessary questions and to commission research that might expose problems whose solution would require considerable expense. Research on health inequalities (Marmot 2004; Wilkinson and Pickett 2010) has indicated that there has been Denial of the implications of relative social status (Ennals 2007). With a change of government, it is now argued that previous policies and programmes for public spending are unsustainable. All welfare benefits are under review, with the objective of making major reductions.

For some time, government has accepted arguments from employers that they do not want further regulation and has limited the resources available for enforcement of current legislation, including provisions of European Employment and Social Policy (Ennals 2001). There has been little tripartite discussion. The process of privatisation, moving public services into the private sector, at the expense of the pensions of the workers, has continued. Many public sector jobs are to be cut.

State retirement pension ages are being raised at an accelerating pace, affecting retirement plans for baby boomers. Employers are closing many occupational pension schemes; many company schemes are in deficit after employers had taken extended “pensions holidays,” suspending contributions. Government is changing the terms of occupational pension schemes for public sector workers, and changing the official basis on which inflation is calculated for pension schemes in general. It is proposed to reduce redundancy payments for civil servants. The default retirement age is no longer to provide a basis for terminating employment: this is not so much in belated response to the 2000 EU Discrimination Directive as a means of saving on state benefits.

All of these changes, communicated through daily government announcements, and without debate or consultation, are transforming financial prospects for workers on their retirement. The level of state retirement pensions is low. Those relying on income from their savings are faced with record low interest rates. Levels of personal and household debt are high.

3.2 Uncertainty

As older workers consider the situations of their parents and their children, they can feel surrounded by uncertainty and left on their own to deal with intractable problems. There are questions about the cost of care for the elderly, which the political parties refused to address before the 2010 UK general election. There is no consistency in current arrangements across the UK. Medical and social care is handled in diverse ways, with a “postcode lottery.” The Coalition government has established a Commission to consider financial arrangements for care for the elderly, matching the Commission that is considering the finances of universities. Older workers feel the world changing around them, without them being able to participate in decision making.

3.3 All in this together

The UK government has argued that “we are all in this together.” However, there is considerable inequality, including inequality between generations. Awareness has increased regarding the challenge of intergenerational relations, and the relative affluence and privilege of many of the “baby boomer” generation. Meeting the needs of the current generation of leaders may be at the expense of their children’s generation.

Willetts, Minister for Higher Education, in his book “The Pinch” (Atlantic, London 2010), has criticised the impact of individualism and giving preferential treatment to one’s own children. He has recognised that there are baby boomers who would like to honour their wider obligations, adhering to a social contract which spans gaps between the generations. Such baby boomers are “the jam in the sandwich,” both squeezed by pressure from the generations before and after, and uniquely equipped to respond. They provide the basis for the creation of collaborative advantage between and within generations. Their skills, experience, and tacit knowledge are key ingredients in the new social glue. They can make a difference.

To recognise the existence of a problem does not mean that the problem has been solved. Denial continues. It has been compounded by the credit crunch and economic crisis, which have led to increased unemployment, falling income for those depending on savings, and imminent deep cuts in public spending. This was argued by Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, in his book “The Storm” (Atlantic, London 2009). The new UK government faces many policy challenges. The public imagination needs to be captured, with a positive agenda that does not simply relegate older workers to the political sidelines (Judt 2010).

The English riots of August 2011 raised public awareness of tensions between the generations, and the feeling of despair among people who feel trapped in a spiral of decline. New structures may be needed if the new social capital is to be sustainable. One such structure could be the “senior quality circle,” learning from experience of quality circles in industry (Ishikawa 1990; Hutchins 2008), and students’ quality circles in education (Chapagain 2006). The pooled experience of circle members can be a powerful resource, and in a context of weakened public services, it can provide a new base on which to build. Circles can facilitate pressure for continuous improvement, driven by empowered members.

3.4 The big society and movements

The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has argued the case for “The Big Society.” At the same time as removing funds for public services, thus cutting large numbers of jobs, he is asking for volunteers to deliver many of those services free of charge. The timing might be seen as unfortunate. The message was not understood by his party during the election campaign and has not subsequently resonated with the public. Circles may provide a more effective approach.

In the USA, the “Tea Party Movement” is attracting criticism for a lack of focus, consistency, and rigour. Organised by Republicans following their defeat in Presidential elections, it has provided a route for genteel protest, by politicians such as Sarah Palin, against the economic and social policies of the Obama Presidency.

In the UK, we favour a “Jam Sandwich Movement,” or a “Jam and Chutney Movement,” representing simple hospitality, with social events around the country, hosted by older workers, meeting in senior quality circles. The new movement could be supported by the UK Work Organisation Network (Totterdill et al. 2012). It would raise awareness and facilitate collective action. Jam needs to be spread, as a practical approach to building social capital.

A new non-partisan movement, with a practical focus, needs to enter the public debate and should cross generational boundaries. The core of the movement should be older workers, whose experience and skills provide the necessary social capital, as well as the jam and chutney. Relationships formed in the context of working life can take on a new form in the context of “life after work.” Lessons can be learned from students’ quality circles and “life before work.”

The balancing act needs to be further developed, as policy changes in Europe and around the world may force even more informal care responsibilities on older workers. Hoffmann and Rodrigues state that “the policy trend observed in some countries towards targeting services to those more in need of care (e.g. in England and Sweden) may also leave some tasks to be carried out by informal carers alone” (2010: 12). This is happening at the same time as efforts to increase labour market participation for the 50+ generation, making older workers doubly important, both in the home and in the labour market. A little jam will have to go a long way. There are potential new roles for trade unions, whose influence has been declining in recent years, and for partnership with employers and community groups.

3.5 Going around in circles

There is much to be learned from the differences between the experiences of the two countries. We see a case for new collaborative approaches.

In Norway, programmes for older workers, or seniors, have built on action research in working life and take account of ongoing research supported by the Norwegian Research Council. We need to identify lessons learned about the effectiveness of particular policy initiatives. They will have international relevance, as demographic change is international. The concept, from the UK, of seniors “being the jam in the generational sandwich” opens new discussions and new fields of research that have so far only been peripheral to Norwegian active ageing efforts. Agendas are changing in the globalised world. Much can be learned by exploring intergenerational issues through practical, action research-based projects.

In the UK, there has been a shortage of research and a lack of commitment to government programmes. We have argued for new initiatives, with a focus on intergenerational pressures, and including a new set of interventions. These need to be monitored and analysed, for example using the criteria of Seniors policy in Norway.

There are sufficient similarities to justify ongoing collaboration, for mutual benefit. In both cases, we see the case for the creation of new collaborative advantage, as groups come together for mutual support. This should involve new relations between the generations. At the interfaces between stages in the life course, and between generations, we see an emerging role for circles.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2012