Last year UK government launched its modern Industrial Strategy. The aim: to build an economy fit for the future and become a world leader in the industries that will define it.
In a series of blogs, Sam Nicholson, Head of Manufacturing at the GC Business Growth Hub, will explore each of the four Grand Challenges identified in the strategy and consider how SME manufacturers can embrace the exciting opportunities ahead. Here she unpacks the fourth and final challenge: Ageing Society.
What do we mean by Ageing Society?
“The UK population is ageing, as it is across the industrialised world. The prospect of longer lives will require people to plan their careers and retirement differently. Ageing populations will create new demands for technologies, products and services.”
As much as we try to avoid the topic, we’re all getting older. In 2016, nearly one in five of us were at least 65 years old. By 2046 it will be almost one in four. According to current estimates, one in three children born in the UK today can expect to live to 100.
This is of course a good thing on the surface; we’re living longer, fuller lives than ever before. An ageing population will also create a vast number of new opportunities for innovative, age-friendly products and services. However, propping it up poses a huge challenge for our economy.
The government has recognised the importance of this issue by putting it on a level playing field with three other major challenges of our time: Mobility, Clean Growth and Artificial Intelligence. It will put obvious pressures on our healthcare system and also require new technologies to help us maintain healthy, active and independent lives into old age. Making use of the data and automation revolution for smart products and services will be key, whether it’s digital home control systems, wearable technologies or modular housing materials that can adapt to different living arrangements.
Perhaps more importantly for most manufacturers, however, is that an ageing society requires us to plan careers and retirement differently. The government is clear in its Industrial Strategy that businesses will need to re-design jobs and working arrangements to help older employees stay in work for longer:
“With an ageing workforce and fewer people entering the labour market from education and training, employers will need a more flexible labour market that can accommodate older workers. To help realise the potential in the labour market…we will work with business to make flexible working a reality for all employees across Britain.”
This is particularly pertinent for manufacturers. As of 2014, manufacturing was one of just four sectors in the UK that had more than one million workers aged over 50.
The difficulty of attracting the younger generation to manufacturing is well-recognised, with a recent survey showing that just 6 per cent of 16-23 year-olds would consider a career in the sector. But retaining the experience of older workers in a fast-changing world of digitisation and automation is just as important.
Flexible working is one of the emerging solutions that could help at both ends of the spectrum and, despite posing a challenge to many companies, it is becoming more common. Research from EEF shows that an increasing number of manufacturers are beginning to offer more agile forms of working, such as part-time work, individualised hours and job shares. These arrangements appeal to the age-diverse talent pool of the future, reflecting both the values of incoming younger workers and the needs of older employees with changing lifestyles. The trick of course for any manufacturer is how to introduce workforce flexibility without losing out on quality, cost and delivery.
The changing nature of manufacturing poses a specific challenge for older employees. Digitalisation and automation is already shifting jobs away from traditional, repetitive manual labour to tasks requiring more nuanced, digital and creative skillsets. While the youngest in the job market are already preparing for this transformation, ironically it is those with the longest manufacturing CVs that could be most at risk. Some will need support to help them up-skill if they are to keep up with the factory of the future.
Put simply, an ageing society means manufacturers will need to take action on a number of fronts to maintain an effective workforce, not only by taking steps to ‘attract’ younger talent, but also to ‘retain’ and ‘retrain’ their existing employees for longer, more fulfilling careers.
As always, our Manufacturing Advisors are on hand to help manufacturers from all sub-sectors of the industry to recognise and react to these challenges.