Older Germans tend to be motivated workers | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 24.11.2012
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Older Germans tend to be motivated workers

Is it the fear of poverty in old age or a desire for social interaction? People have different reasons for wanting to stay employed, but Germans are entering retirement later today than 15 years ago.

Being employed can mean quarrelling with your boss, keeping project deadlines and participating in energy-sapping meetings. What's making older workers accept all that for longer than they used to? Compared to 2001, there are now twice as many employed Germans between the ages of 60 and 64, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The share of working people in that age group has risen to 44.2 percent, up from 21.4 percent in 2001. This means that Germany's employment rate for people past the age of 60 is way above the average OECD and European Union levels. Are policy makers to be lauded for that?

Yes, says the OECD. The organization points to Germany's staggered raising of the retirement age, with opportunities for people to go into early retirement getting smaller at the same time. But irrespective of legislative changes, other factors have contributed to this development, including a new perception of work.

The work-life balance

Bernhard Switaiski and Klaus von Holt both have jobs they like, and both are over 60. Switaiski is involved in job placement while von Holt recently landed a job through a placement service.

"Older employees are generally worried about the prospect of having to suffer tangible financial reductions after being pensioned off," says von Holt. "That's why people try to cling to their jobs as long as possible."

He adds that other motives have been crucial for him personally.

"It would have been a pity to no longer be able to put to use the experiences I've collected in many working environments," argues von Holt.

Portrait of Bernhard Switaiski Copyright: private

Switaiski claims old means anything but useless in the work environment

He's 61 years old, and his CV is correspondingly long. He studied physics in Bonn. For his PhD, he obtained a degree in forensic medicine. Later on he earned additional qualifications in toxicology. After many years of being employed in industry and as a self-employed consultant, he accepted a post at the Research Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn (DZNE). As an assistant in a small research team, he looked into the side effects of medication for elderly patients.

Switaiski is two years von Holt's senior. Switaiski is a consultant with a regional employment agency in Bonn. He works 19 hours per week on a part-time basis, since his wife depends on nursing. In June of next year, he'll retire.

"I'm not afraid of falling into a sort of limbo," Switaiski says. "I work in an honorary capacity and am engaged in social networking. But I'm not really counting down until retirement, as I love my job."

Participating in social life

Life expectancy in Germany has risen 10 years since 1960, and so has the period when people no longer work. Switaiski also points out the country's low birth rate.

"It's necessary for older employees to work longer," he maintains. To keep the current social system financially afloat, the period between the point of retirement and death must not become too long, he argues. "Otherwise we'll see pensions going down, resulting in a rise in old-age poverty."

Porttrait of Klaus von Holt Copyright: privat

Von Holt says older people's access to the labor market remains difficult

Germany has long indulged in the luxury of leaving the work potential of older people largely unused. Policy makers had offered older workers incentives to go into early retirement, arguing that employment opportunities for young people could be enhanced that way. But since 2005, the country has pushed through crucial reforms and implemented a great deal of the OECD's recommendations concerning longer employment for older workers.

There's also been a change in how people view their jobs, says Switaiski.

"There was a time when it was not really common for 55-year-olds to work," he says. "Accordingly, only few did so. But nowadays more and more people are in employment past the age of 65."

And while financial considerations certainly play a role, many are simply interested in taking part in social life.

Job hunting difficult

Von Holt recalls it took only two to three weeks for him to get an invitation for a job interview. After six months, he opted for his current employer. But it usually takes much longer for older applicants to find new work.

"I was employed at a research institute which was shut down last year," von Holt recounts. "Some of my former colleagues between 40 and 55 have had enormous difficulties finding new jobs."

Symbolbild Altes Ehepaar: Altes Ehepaar sitzt auf einer Parkbank

Not everyone's ideal of old age

He adds that if an older applicant wants to get an adequate job, he or she is often viewed as a potential unwanted rival at the management level. "That's why many of them have sold themselves at less than fair value," von Holt says, meaning they got employed as ordinary workers in order to be accepted.

Switaiski has a similar take on things. "The danger of older people getting unemployed may be not as high as among the young, but once they lose their jobs and are over 60, they're clearly at a disadvantage." He argues the German labor market has not yet realized how crucial older workers' experiences are for companies.

Von Holt is willing and able to work, and his age and job profile go together well. He wants to keep working until the official retirement age of a little under 67 years, and is even thinking of becoming a part-time self-employed consultant after that.

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