Not everyone has welcomed the Government’s plans to review the standard retirement age, but older workers are invaluable to retail. Here, Charlotte Hardie talks to some of the industry’s mature stars

Syd Prior, 94, says his job at B&Q keeps him “young at heart”. Jenny Bradley, 67, has worked at Marks & Spencer for nearly half a century and has no intention whatsoever of reducing her full-time hours - let alone retiring. Cynthia Wood, 66, loves the family atmosphere at Asda’s Halifax store so much that “she couldn’t bear to leave”. Meanwhile, 83-year-old Fred Sirrell, who works at Asda’s Gloucester store, has just been voted the nation’s favourite checkout operator by The Sun readers because of his “natural, friendly banter”.

Last month, the Government’s decision to bring forward a review of the default retirement age by a year to 2011 sparked a mixed response. The CBI branded the move “disappointing”, particularly at a time when businesses are under recessionary pressures, because it said a default age helps staff decide when is right to retire and helps companies plan ahead.

CBI head of employment policy Neil Carberry says there is no need to change the current system. As it stands, if people want to work beyond 65 they often can - 81 per cent of requests to do so are granted by employers. “We worry that if you make changes to this you create a vacuum whereby all the power is in the employees’ hands, and ultimately you risk getting a rash of competency-based dismissals,” he says.

This might certainly be a risk in some organisations, but for the retail sector older staff are an invaluable part of the workforce and many of the multiples are proud of their open attitude towards employing those who are older than the standard retirement age. At B&Q, for instance, 8% of its 33,500 employees are over 65.

Asda colleague relations manager Stuart Price says that when employees hit their 65th birthday, there are no meetings or discussions about their future retirement plans - the grocer waits for staff to approach them.

Unlike the CBI, the Trade Union Congress welcomes the Government’s decision to review the default retirement age. “Employers should have a choice,” says general-secretary Brendan Barber. “A key challenge as we live and stay active longer is developing the right kind of jobs, support and training for older workers.”

And this is an important point. Many retailers give as much attention to developing the skills of their older store staff as they do to those in their early 20s. One in five employees on Tesco’s Options internal development programme at present are over 50. The retail sector also disproves the stereotypical image of apprenticeships being the domain of fresh-faced school leavers who are just starting out in the world of work: B&Q apprentice Terry Robinson is 70.

There are several reasons why an older workforce is especially valued within many retail businesses. One, says Tesco HR director Hayley Tatum, is the diversity it brings to store teams. “Both young and old staff are able to benefit from each other and learn from each other’s way of working,” she explains. Cynthia Wood, who works in the bakery section of Asda’s Halifax store, says: “I feel respected in the store and often many of the younger ones will turn to me for advice.”

Former RAF policeman and Metropolitan Police detective sergeant Charles Palmer, 71, works at Tesco’s Eastbourne Extra store. He says the same as Cynthia: “I like meeting and working with people young and old so I can teach them and they can learn from me.”

Meanwhile, at BootsTrafford Centre store, 76-year-old Arthur Thorniley is a shining example of an employee role model. In April he was joint winner of the retailer’s Best of the Best community hero award for his charity fundraising work over the past 10 years, for which he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and trekked 90 miles across the Sahara Desert. As a Boots spokeswoman says: “Arthur is an inspiration to us all.”

Having older workers on the team can also help boost customer service. Many retailers have customers of all ages and so having an equally diverse workforce can only be a good thing. Price says: “We always talk about how the population of our colleagues needs to represent the community.” Cynthia believes the way people of her generation were brought up has instilled certain attributes and manners in them that aren’t always so prevalent among some of the younger gener-ation, which helps them relate to the older customers.

Tatum adds that staff turnover is at its lowest point in the over-50s age bracket. “We as a company benefit from the loyalty and reliability that this age group provides,” she says. And what better example than Jenny Bradley’s 49 years of loyal service to M&S?

Retailers’ open-minded approach to age diversity in the workplace does not just apply to store staff, either. Caryl Kelly is 68 and works full-time at Boots’ head office as a professional support pharmacist. “I’m perfectly fit and able and want to contribute to the profession for as long as I can,” she says. “I’ve worked in a number of pharmaceutical jobs over the years and all that experience is really useful in my job and I have the younger members of the team shadowing me.”

Like everyone interviewed for this feature, Caryl has no plans to retire in the foreseeable future. “I don’t want to be at home all day. As long as I meet all the performance targets required there’s absolutely no reason why I should retire as long as I don’t go ga-ga,” she laughs.

All those who are working within retail who have chosen not to retire at 65 say it helps keep them feeling young and their brain active. Given that the average life expectancy of a man is now 77 and a woman is 82, everyone has to expect to work longer. So now is the time to celebrate those employees who work beyond the usual retirement age and highlight just how integral they are to UK retail businesses.

Pat Kilford, 77
Comet, Bristol

Pat has already had two retirement parties - at the first her gifts jokingly included a pension book cover and a walking stick. She’s used neither, for although she may be turning 78 later this year she says she will continue to work at Comet for as long as they will have her.

She’s been there more than 21 years - first as a cleaner at the after-sales support centre in Bristol and later in the inventory department as an inventory operative. Each time she has retired she has been called back to help cover holidays and absences and now works a 20 hour week from 9am to 1pm on weekdays helping sort out delivery and booking spare parts.

She admits the money helps. “It allows us perks such as holidays to New Zealand, Madeira and Malta and allows us to keep a car on the road,” she says. But more importantly, Pat loves her job. “It keeps my brain going and gives me something to talk about. I get on with everyone and am always included in everything even though I’m old enough to be grandmother to some of the staff,”she says. The banter is apparent when she returns to her desk after a photo shoot for this piece. “Do we get a signed photo?” asks one colleague.

It may sound like a cliché but she says the job helps keep her young. “If your mind works alongside the young ones then you are the same as them. You haven’t got time to sit and think or mope around so when you are busy your aches and pains disappear,” she says.

And despite another birthday fast approaching she says she isn’t ready to retire - and jokes her bosses won’t allow her to again.

“I have a laugh and enjoy it and will keep on as long as I am needed or as long as I can do the job. As long as you can cope with the job, know what you are doing and are happy I can’t see why elderly people can’t work beyond retirement age,” she says.

Jean Cooper, 72
Sainsbury’s, Brentwood

When Jean became a widow just before Christmas she says that having a job and supportive colleagues made life far easier. “It’s been a lifeline as far as I’m concerned, to be honest, I’ve known people here for such a long time. Working means you get to meet people, get yourself tidied up and get out of the house. I really think that working longer prolongs your life,” she says.

Jean has worked part-time at the store for 25 years and knows it inside out. She works on the checkout, and while she “can’t run around as much as before” following an accident that affected her hip, she says she feels as sprightly as ever.

She adds that some customers definitely appreciate having older workers in the store to talk to. “Maybe it’s a work ethic thing, but I find that a lot of people prefer to ask us older staff questions, particularly if it’s about cooking and things like that,” she says.

While Jean has colleagues in the store of a similar age, she adds that she also enjoys the company of the younger members of the team. “They’re very good and you get such a different outlook from them.”

Syd Prior, 92
B&Q, New Malden

Syd is a customer adviser at the New Malden store and has worked at B&Q for 18 years. He says: “It gives me the chance to put my knowledge and experience to good use, advising customers on their gardening projects. Working with people of all ages gives youngsters the chance to learn a little from an old-timer like myself and they help to keep me young at heart.”

Jennifer Bradley, 67
Marks & Spencer, Bury St Edmonds

In 1960, the year that the farthing coin was demonetised and the Vietnam War broke out, Jenny Bradley followed in her five sisters’ footsteps and started work at Marks & Spencer.

And, 49 years later, she is still a full-time employee, working as a sales assistant, in the same store at Bury St Edmonds. “It’s lovely working here,” she says. “I’ve just been on holiday for two weeks and when I came back all the girls from Per Una came running up to me asking ‘Jenny, where’ve you been?’. I get on really well with all the younger people here.”

The thought of giving up work is certainly not one that appeals. “Everyone’s different, but when I got to 65 I just didn’t want to retire. I suppose I’ve got to do it one day but it will be really weird for me. I’ll probably go part-time first and maybe drop a day first.”

As the longest-serving M&S employee, Jenny was invited to attend a gala evening in London in celebration of the retailer’s 125th anniversary.

“I ended up on the stage with Stuart Rose. Everybody kept coming up to me - I didn’t know them from Adam - and saying I didn’t look old enough to have been here for nearly 50 years. I had such a lovely evening; I even had a standing ovation. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. When I came back to work I was on such a high.”

Terry Robinson, 70
B&Q, Oxford

“My observation is people who take early retirement tend to stay at home and die, basically. Why would I want to do that? I like people, I like the job I do, I like the team spirit and I will keep working until I just can’t do it anymore,” says Terry.

He has worked at B&Q’s Oxford store in the electricals section for just over a year, and is also one of 150 B&Q employers to be selected last month to join its apprenticeship scheme - part of the retailer’s £1m investment into improving the skills of its store teams.

“I thought the apprenticeship would be a challenge and something that would also help me improve my customer service,” he says.

Terry retired from full-time work two years ago after working for 22 years in a managerial role for a residential home parks company. “At 68 I decided that commuting 50 miles to the office was getting a bit too much and retired. But shortly after that I decided I’d like to be out and about for at least four or five hours a day,” he explains.

Retirement features nowhere in his plans, either. “I’ll keep working until my hair falls out and my legs don’t work any more if I can,” he jokes. “It’s still nice to keep the brain going.”

Kay Cox, 67
Tesco, Great Dunmow, Essex

“I’m a youngster then,” laughs Kay, when she realises that other retail employees taking part in this feature are in their late 70s and even 90s. She works full-time on the meat counter at Tesco’s store in Great Dunmow, Essex, and has been at the store for 12 years. Having worked part-time for many years, her last full-time job was when she was serving in the Wrens. “I’m not ready to retire,” she says.

“I’m still active, my mind’s still active, I enjoy what I do and I enjoy the people contact. Apart from anything else I like having the money, and because I’ve done so many part-time jobs I don’t have
a full pension.”

She also believes that having an older, more experienced retail workforce is invaluable for customer service. “We know that from what people tell us,” she says. “We have a lot of elderly customers in the store and they like being served by someone like me who is that bit older.”

Kay is also Tesco’s oldest participant in its apprentice scheme. Apart from learning about key aspects of retail such as security, it also involved brushing up on literacy and numeracy skills - which also meant sitting the odd exam. “I must admit it’s been a long, long time since I did an exam,” she says. “The last one was an hour and a quarter and it was a bit nerve-wracking, but I enjoy learning and it keeps your mind active. I don’t have a date planned for retirement, and even when I decide not to work full-time anymore I’ll still work part-time,” she adds.