Leading French gerontologist Françoise Forette is president of the International Longevity Center in France and co-chairperson of the Alliance for Health & the Future, an international research organization set up to advance public policy on aging-related issues. An expert in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease, hypertension in the elderly, and risk factors for dementia, Forette is a passionate advocate for keeping aging workers on the job, healthy and productive.
Forette recently spoke with BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent Gail Edmondson about how workers 55 and older can be transformed from economic burden to productive resource. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: It's a common belief that older workers are less productive. Is this true?
A:Many studies conducted by insurance companies show there is some association between illness linked to work and age. But as a whole, older workers are healthy and easily adapt to new jobs and work conditions. There's no reason to fire workers after age 50 or 55, as is the practice in many countries, including France. Older workers are more productive in some sectors than in others. In high-tech industries it's proven that older workers, given proper training, can compete with younger workers.
The second point is that most health problems associated with age, such as vision problems, hearing difficulties, cardiovascular illness, and osteoporosis, can be prevented. Prevention is a lifelong perspective. If you promote health, you promote longevity and prosperity.
Life expectancy is linked with a country's economic growth. If you compare two countries which are alike in all aspects, but one has a five-year higher mean life expectancy, the economic growth of that country will be 0.25% to 0.5% higher. That means as long as older workers are active, an aging population doesn't hurt a country's economic growth.
Q: How does France stack up in an international context?
A:The problem is the employment rate after 50 and after 60. Only 7% of French men are actively employed after 60, and only 4% of French women. That compares with 27% of U.S. males and 14% of U.S. women.
Take the age group of 55-64. Only 34% are employed in France, compared with 50% in Britain, and 67% in Sweden. It's a question of the will to integrate the aging population. Britain and Sweden have succeeded.
Q: For decades, European countries and companies have wielded early retirement as a handy tool to help industries restructure and ease unemployment by making way for younger workers. Won't a shift toward keeping older workers on the job exacerbate unemployment?
A:In France there was an illusion that if you fire elderly workers, you create jobs for younger people. It's not firing older people that creates jobs. The problem is to stimulate the economy overall to create more jobs.
[Former President François] Mitterrand decreased the age of retirement in 1981, and he didn't create one job. The jobs [governments want to create with such policies] are not the same as those being vacated by older workers.
Q: What are the key adaptations needed to better integrate an aging workforce?
A:One problem is adapting workers to new jobs. Companies need to implement lifelong education and retraining programs. Most of them don't do it yet. Finland has succeeded beautifully on that front. And all countries in Western Europe could succeed.
Q: Is there any benefit to workers for delaying retirement?
A:The longer you work, the healthier you are. The difference in mortality is enormous. The rate of mortality for the unemployed is three times higher than for the employed.
Q: So why are French unions opposed to schemes that delay retirement and lengthen the working life?
A:In France there is a lack of information. At the International Longevity Center we're just starting to push this information out into the public arena. We have arranged colloquia with human-resources directors, [and we will focus] on the health status of older workers and the advantages companies can keep by retaining older workers. We will use examples of companies which have already had successful experiences.
[French insurer] Axa (AXA ) has done very important work on that front. There's no early retirement offered by the company. Each employee has the right to retain or change his job as he gets older. The older workers are actually more satisfied than the younger ones.
Q: How is the French government dealing with this issue?
A:The average age of retirement in France today is 57. The government wants to raise it to 60, but the unions say no. Companies are just beginning to understand that an aging population will also mean a shortage of workers. In five years it will begin to hit some sectors.
Q: How long can we work and feel fit?
A:In many sectors people can work into their 70s and feel fine.
Q: So is it wrong to view our aging societies as an economic time bomb?
A:The increase in longevity is fantastic good news. We must transform it into a catalyst that benefits individuals and the country's economy. If most people stay active until 65, there is no bomb.