Helsinki (10.07.1998 - Tiina Huokuna) The large age classes are a large question mark on the labour market.  We'll all face problems unless the large age classes can be encouraged to stay active in the workforce longer, and thriving on the job.

At the present time, only mini-sized age classes are coming on to the labour market.  Their numbers aren't enough to replace the massive exit of labour from the workforce.

There is good reason to want to keep people in their fifties active members of the labour market. Firstly, they are the country's first whole age class to have such a good level of education. Keeping the large age classes in the workforce also has an impact on the national economy. The pension system simply cannot flexibly accommodate the simultaneous early exit from the workforce of so many people.

One critical point will be reached a couple of years from now. By the year 2000, the population between 50 and 64 years of age will have risen by 170,000 people while the number of people 24 to 49 years of age will have fallen by 150,000. During the five-year span ending in 2000, more Finns will pass their 50th birthday than the nationals of any other country in the world, relative to the population. These are facts we must live with and adapt to.

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has presented another side to the situation. Ageing workers 45 years old or over have strong points too, which only need to be brought to the fore. A feature becoming increasingly apparent on the labour market is ageing workers' need for individually-tailored solutions. Professor Juhani Ilmarinen of the Institute stresses the folly of assigning 25-year-olds and 50-year-olds the same work.

Professor Ilmarinen emphasises that management by age is neither a bag of tricks nor a complex structure involving major investments. "Management by age is a cheap solution.  All it requires is that people making decisions adjust their thinking, adopt new values and change their attitudes. In the past, too, a good supervisor has striven to find individual solutions - an effort not made by a poor supervisor."

"Good leadership has always been a natural talent based in leadership genes and reinforced largely during childhood and youth. If the right tendencies are lacking, no amount of book learning and courses can make the person into a leader. Our studies indicate that slightly under one in four has naturalleadership tendencies," Ilmarinen says.

Ilmarinen shows curves, compiled at the Institute, which illustrate the principal threats facing Finnish working life.  The disproportion is clear; the large age classes are truly large, the younger age classes small in comparison. There is a real need for the National Programme on Ageing Workers to act swiftly, as a high proportion of the large age classes is already in their fifties.

"It takes years to train young people for new jobs. It is thus faster, cheaper, more humane and more sensible to improve the environment in which ageing people work," Ilmarinen points out.

He is far from discouraged by the situation. Management by age offers one promising approach for dealing with these issues. Job content can be developed so as to be better suited to ageing workers.

Ilmarinen continues: "Steps should be taken to keep individuals' mental, physical and social functional capacity as good as possible.   This is one important part of the picture. Another factor, and by no means the least important, is up-dating professional skills.  We at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health believe that if matters are handled in the right way, people will be able to continue working until the current statutory retirement age of 65, in the future probably even beyond their 65th birthday."

Youth is prized in Finnish society all too uncritically. In working life, this uncritical admiration is reflected in employers' desire to hire young, well-educated people with a little experience. In many fields, someone who has reached the age of 40 is already a bit too old - unless the person happens to be a guru in the field concerned.

"Young people have their own strong points, but so do ageing workers over 50. Age discrimination is being countered, for instance, by making the employment of older people as economically attractive as the employment of young people," Ilmarinen explains.

Skills should be kept up-to-date all the time.  Many ageing workers encounter difficulties in meeting the demands of the information society. Nerves are frazzled, for example, by the computer. Lifelong learning at work, however, has come to stay; few can escape this.

Nor are age discrimination and displacement of ageing workers from the labour market a joy to younger people. Instead, a heavier burden is placed on their shoulders.

People elsewhere remain active in working life longer than in Finland. Moreover, the expertise of senior workers is esteemed better in other countries. Finnish working life excludes people unusually early, though according to statistics, Finns are not in any worse shape than others - Danes, for instance.

A national weekly magazine, Suomen Kuvalehti, recently featured an article on the challenges to working life presented by ageing workers, and Ilmarinen received many revealing phone calls from senior managers.

"For some reason, Finnish companies think that once a director has retired, his or her expertise is no longer useful. The younger people take it as a question of honour to manage without the retired director. Yet it's clear that many directors are still sharp at 75 years of age, and would be glad to perform some of the tasks included in their former career. Naturally these seniors would have to push themselves forward to be included, and this isn't the Finnish way of proceeding," Ilmarinen says.

(Published originally in Socius Finland 1/1998)