THE latest snapshot of older people's working patterns confirms the trend of more individuals remaining in work beyond the state retirement age.

This is hardly surprising when the value of pensions has diminished as the cost of living has increased. As longer life expectancy means provision for retirement must cover 20 years or more, those who are both healthy and prudent are likely to lengthen their working life and shorten their retirement.

But will that also be in the best interests of other age groups? Almost one-quarter of people aged between 65 and 74 are continuing to earn a wage, an increase of 5% on three years ago. But the trend for longer working is even more marked in the age group approaching state pension age. Over the last three years there has been a 14% rise in the proportion of those between 55 and 64 in paid work, from 41% to 55%. Some of this increase will be due to the gradual raising of the state pension age for women from 60 to 65 and was to be expected. However, the abolition of the default retirement age last year, which meant employers could not force workers to retire at 65, will be significant in enabling a far greater proportion of people to continue working into what was previously considered old age.

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The survey was carried out by insurance group Aviva but the findings bear out other research. Around half a million jobs have been added to the UK economy in the past year, yet there has been little change to the unemployment rate, partly because more older people are staying in work. The Institute for Employment Studies reports that people over 50 account for one-fifth of the recent growth in employment. The key question is whether older workers are gaining employment at the expense of the younger generation. Around 70% of them work part-time (over-55s typically plan to work only 11 hours a week according to Aviva) whereas the majority of younger people work full-time. The jury is out on whether businesses may be retaining the part-time services of an experienced worker rather than taking on someone new,.However almost 40% of older workers are self-employed compared with 5% of younger workers, indicating little direct competition.

The contribution of retired people to caring for grandchildren or carrying out voluntary work is estimated to be worth £643m a week. It is less clear whether those in part-time work are more or less likely to make that sort of contribution.

However, as the definition of old age becomes blurred, so does the boundary between work and retirement. More older people are recognising the benefits of continuing to work but employment is still largely organised on traditional lines. The growing number of self-employed older workers, however, could deliver the flexible labour market that will be the key to adapting swiftly to the needs of the economy.