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Silver and gold

The grand dame of British swimming, Rebecca Adlington is retiring from competitive swimming at the ripe old age of 23.

“Female swimming is getting a lot younger,” she said. “I can’t compete with that."

Rebecca started training seriously at the age of 12. The hard training has taken its toll and that level of work and commitment is not something that can be kept up indefinitely. At the London Olympics, she was beaten in her main event by 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky. Katie is four years younger than Rebecca was when she won her two gold medals in Beijing.

Rebecca is philosophical. “It is the nature of how hard the sport is. As a female we naturally peak a lot younger than men. When you are younger you can do hard session after hard session and you do not run out of energy. As soon as you get older you get more tired. They can do more hard work. I still do the same hard work but then my body shuts down and goes ‘you need to do a recovery session’.”

What can we learn from this elite sportswoman’s approach? It’s sensible to be realistic about what is and what is not achievable, especially as we get older. Challenging ourselves (physically and mentally) can be good for us. Betting on wild improbabilities is more likely to end in tears.

While most of us won’t be thinking about retiring at 23, there is a link with the workplace. The removal of the default retirement age in most instances undoubtedly creates problems for employers. I have written before (and nothing has intervened since to change my view),that employers are extremely unhappy to have this forced on them. I have not met a single employer who has punched the air with delight because the DRA has gone. They would prefer to make their own decisions about allowing older workers to stay on.

Well, we are where are and the two key issues are declining work place performance and/ or ill health which makes doing the job difficult or impossible. This means that employers have to go through formal, lengthy and often very upsetting conversations with employees who don’t want to go (perhaps can’t afford to go) but won’t accept that they are no longer able to do all or part of the job. It’s a toxic situation.

Research carried out recently by the Group Risk Development has found that a third of employers have seen the average age of their workforce increase since the removal of the DRA. Employers who responded to the survey have reported that there has been an increase in sickness absence in the older workers age group. 27% said they have seen an increase in absence rates or age-related conditions such as diabetes or arthritis in the same period of time.

One hopes that as employees get older, if they’re in a situation where they need to consider reducing hours, doing alternative work or even having to step down if no reasonable adjustments can be made, that they will take a leaf from Rebecca Adlington’s book and properly consider it.

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