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Liz Vercoe looks at the rising trend of flexible working, and considers why this can be a good thing for older people.

On 5 October 2012, we reached the last date that anyone will retire on the grounds of reaching ‘the default retirement age’. A change in the law in 2011 meant firms can no longer ask employees to leave on grounds of age alone.

So, if you wish, you can carry on working past your pension age. This is great news for people who enjoy their work, have the energy to continue, and/or need the income.

Flexible working has some great benefits for employees and their employers. It can lead to:

  • improved productivity
  • higher staff retention
  • increased skill-sharing
  • better customer relations.

What is ‘flexible working’?

Flexible working means you have more choice over when and where you work than a standard contract. So rather than working Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, you might choose a flexible work option, such as:

  • Flexitime, where you can vary when you start and finish your working day or work extra hours to build up flexidays of extra leave.
  • Compressed hours, where you work your full hours but over a shorter period of time, such as 8am to 6pm over four days rather than 9am to 5pm over five days.
  • Part-time working or job sharing, where you share your job with another colleague and split the hours between you.
  • Location flexible. Perhaps you can work from home all or part of the time, or be on call from wherever you want to be based, or work in different branches if you sometimes need to be near a relative, care home or hospital.

The options only count as flexible if chosen or agreed by the employee and not something, such as reduced hours, the employer simply imposes.

Why consider flexible working?

Flexible working isn’t just for parents and carers. It could suit a lot of people in very different circumstances, for example, those with:

  • caring responsibilities
  • health issues
  • a desire to take up new hobbies, volunteer or learn something new
  • travel plans
  • the desire to spend more time with a partner

If you are thinking about retiring in the next few years, starting to work flexibly could also be a good bridge into retirement. Stopping work suddenly can cause a shock to the system, and some people find that they get bored or even depressed after retirement. Flexible working could help you to adjust to that part of your life in a more gradual way.

Your right to flexible working

All employees, except agency workers, have the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers. You have this right if you have worked for your employer continuously for 26 weeks. You only have the right to make one request for flexible working in any 12 month period, although different employers may consider more frequent requests.

You should put your request in writing, stating the following:

  • that you are making a statutory request for flexible working
  • what working conditions you would like to change
  • when you would like the change to be made
  • what effect you think this will have for the employer and how this could be dealt with
  • whether or not you have made any other applications for flexible working and when those were made

If you make a request for flexible working your employer must hold a meeting to discuss your request and weigh up the potential advantages and disadvantages. They can only refuse your application if they have a good business reason for doing so and they must offer you an appeal process. The whole process, from receiving your request to an appeal, shouldn’t take longer than three months.

Flexible working makes an extended working life much more attractive. Read the stories below to find out how flexibile working gave Geoff time to care for someone and Penny time to support a family.

Geoff's story: flexibility to care for someone

Geoff Stanford.

67-year-old Geoff Stanford loves both the freedom and the social side of his work. The flexibility of the role also allowed him to care for his wife, June, when she had cancer.

Geoff Stanford, who’s now 67, and lives on the south coast, worked full time for British Rail for 35 years and was initially happy when he was offered voluntary severance when he was coming up to 50. ‘I was happy to see an end to commuting day in, day out. I’d have more time at home, see more sport and I could get a local job.

‘Then, unexpectedly, they asked me back to work on a project three to four days a week instead of full time, and a light went on. This was a better way to live - and you got paid. I knew I could enjoy carrying on working if it was more flexible.’

Geoff finds himself a flexible job

So when Geoff left the railways after privatisation, he was determined to find work that was flexible. Money was less of an issue as his wife June was still working, and he was able to take most of his pension early. ‘I’d hated paying into that compulsory pension scheme when I was a youngster, but I ended up so glad I had.

‘I got a job locally with the charity Scope, collecting up all the donations from retailers and the street collection boxes, and banking the money. I had my own patch and worked out my own schedule,’ says the former finance manager.

Freedom to care for his wife

This freedom was even more important when June was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had surgery in 2000, as Geoff explains: ‘I could go to appointments with her and be there when she needed me to be. But being able to work was also important to me personally. It gave me space when I was so worried.’

When the job at Scope came to an end, Geoff looked for something that was equally flexible. His wife was in remission, but Geoff still wanted to keep working environment, so he became a driver for a local car company for three days a week.

But, sadly, in September 2002, June’s cancer came back. Geoff picks up the story: ‘The company were good about me swapping shifts with the other drivers so I could take her for treatments. And when she died the following February, I did take time off.

‘At first I just couldn’t work, but I went back quite soon. The house was so empty. I think men need to be wanted, someone to say “Hi” to you each day.’

‘It keeps me in touch with the real world’

‘I’d really miss this job,’ Geoff enthuses. ‘The other drivers include a former estate agent and a civil servant. I enjoy their company, and it keeps me in touch with the real world. And we help each other out covering shifts and holidays. The firm is quite relaxed about it as long as the manager is informed properly.

‘I think they know we older blokes are reliable, turn up on time, put in the hours, don’t complain and care about we’re doing. They trust us. That’s worth a lot on both sides.

Geoff has also met someone new, Barbara, who works for herself as a beauty therapist. And although a fan of working, he can see there’s more to life. Geoff comments: ‘As she nears retirement I’m trying to get her to work a bit less! So we can do things together in our spare time.’

 

Penny's story: flexibility to support a family

Penny Stott.

After having to miss an important social engagement, Penny Stott decided that, at 64, she really ought to be able to do what she wanted to do. So she chose a more flexible way of working.

‘I find I just need my work to be more flexible these days,’ says Penny Stott, until recently a senior nurse practitioner at a busy London doctors’ surgery. ‘Even working four days a week, two on split shifts, didn’t allow me to do the things I need and want to do, like looking after my grandchildren, travel and meeting up with friends during the day.

‘The crunch came when there was a celebration for one of my late husband Richard’s close friends, including work they’d done together and I wasn’t allowed the time off to attend. It was a link to Richard that really mattered to me. Shortly after that I thought “I’m 64, I really ought to be able to do what I want to do.”’

‘I need my work to fit in with the rest of my life’

So Penny has decided that things needed to change. Still not ready for retirement, her plan is to become a freelance nurse for a private doctor as well as providing cover at the surgery where she’s worked for 21 years.

Penny explains: ‘I don’t want to give up work. I love it and I know I’m useful. I just need to be able to fit it in with the rest of my life.

‘Nursing is potentially a very good career for flexibility whatever your age because we can always cover for each other. There’s training every year to keep your registration, so everyone is up-to-speed.

‘Patients don’t care what your age is as long as you know your job.’

Flexible working arrangements are not always available

But not all jobs allow such flexibility as Penny observes: ‘I’m really shocked, from talking to patients, to hear how inflexible so many companies are, even over compassionate leave or taking a husband or wife to chemotherapy sessions.

‘My surgery was very good when I had to take time off when Richard was ill, but that was different to the week-to-week flexibility I need now.

‘I have four grandchildren, one who is starting at a Special School, and all their parents work. They just need help sometimes.

 

Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 169 2081