Research shows little evidence that organisations have begun to work through the implications of an ageing workforce – but employers are helping nobody with silence on retirement.

"Age discrimination legislation and the abolition of compulsory retirement at 65 means that employers are worried about talking to older workers about retiring, for fear of being accused of ageism," says Professor Sarah Vickerstaff. "But our study suggests this defensive approach is helping nobody."

Age discrimination legislation made direct or indirect discrimination on the basis of age illegal in 2006. In 2011, it also became illegal to force someone to retire at a particular age. "These changes firmly place the onus on employers to extend working lives by recruiting and retaining older workers," says Professor Vickerstaff. However, in-depth case studies exploring organisational practice with regard to older workers find little evidence that organisations have begun to work through the implications of an ageing workforce. Rather, the misguided idea that no one should mention retirement is taking hold.

"This is highly dysfunctional for everybody, as it creates uncertainty on both sides," she explains. Line managers cannot plan for succession because they don't know when people will go, and employees have little support in making decisions about when to retire or how to ease into retirement.

Flexible working too may not, as many assume, be the key to gradual retirement. "Our analysis suggests that access to flexible working arrangements is exaggerated," she says. "Many simply cannot afford to work part time, often women are already working part time and many occupations still do not support this way of working. Realism is needed about the genuine restraints to taking up flexible working opportunities."

Nor is everyone fit – either physically or mentally – to work into their late 60s. "We find that a person’s ability to work beyond 60 has probably been determined well over a decade before," she points out. Poor psychological health and adverse events, even as far back as childhood, can have a profound impact on working life and the subsequent ability of older adults to extend their working years.

Both policymakers and employers need to address these challenges, researchers suggest. To extend working lives, employers must do more to engage, train and provide opportunities for older workers and start conversations about retirement. Government should explore options for flexible withdrawal of state pension for those who cannot afford to take phased retirement, adopt a cross-government national skills strategy for older workers and target interventions at promoting good physical and mental health throughout the lifecourse.