Too old to be hired, too young to retire

Keeping older workers at work should be a priority for businesses, according to the government Keystone

Politicians see a need for older workers to work longer, but only 1% of Swiss job ads are aimed at people over 45. More efforts need to be made in hiring older workers if Switzerland is to deal with demographics and new limits on immigration.

This content was published on March 31, 2015 - 11:00
Jeannie Wurz, in Bern,

The second-floor office in the Regional Employment Centre (RAV) serving central Bern is full of large plants. Birds twitter outside the windows, and the sun shines in. Spring has sprung in the Swiss capital, but the people coming to RAV aren’t necessarily enjoying the weather. They’ve lost their jobs, and finding a new one can be difficult. The closer they are to retirement, the more limited the options.

As one of 160 caseworkers serving the canton of Bern, Theresa Muggli handles well over a hundred dossiers a year and counsels five to six clients a day. This day begins with a visit from 55-year-old Renata Rieder (not her real name), a soft-spoken woman wearing pearl earrings, rimless glasses and a powder-blue sweater.

“We were all a bit depressed,” says Rieder, reporting on a CV-writing class she attended with ten other job-seekers. Rieder, who has a business school diploma, has been registered with RAV for two and a half months. After 20 years in the same company, she resigned from her job, where she says she was a victim of mobbing.

On this day, things are going “much better”, Rieder tells her counsellor. She’s been selected for a four-month internship in a government office. It will give her references and help her avoid a gap in her CV. And there’s always a chance that it will lead to a permanent position.

Rieder knows that people of her generation have stiff competition.

“Our handicap is that, although we have a great deal of work experience, we were educated 30 years ago,” she says. “Today’s young people have a totally different education, with the internet, with PC’s. And we older workers find it hard to compete with that.”


Normally, finding work involves identifying a potential job and applying for it. But what if there aren’t any jobs to apply for? A 2015 studyExternal link commissioned by the Zurich-based newspaper Tages-Anzeiger found that ads posted on the country’s largest online platform – – discriminate against older workers.

Of the 24,897 job ads evaluated, some 43% listed an ideal age range. Of some 200 ads looking for candidates within the category 35 to 65 years, most referred to an “ideal age beginning at 35”. Only 20 ads explicitly asked for candidates aged 45 to 65.

According to Markus Widmer, head of a RAV office in the Swiss capital, one of 14 offices run by the government in canton Bern, many firms have reservations when it comes to hiring older workers. “They think, ‘Maybe this person isn’t so alert, is less flexible, has less experience with computers and social media, costs more’,” he says.

But Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset, speaking at the Berlin Demography Forum in March, said that the worldwide change in demographics has to be seen as an opportunity: “The ageing of the population compels us to involve everyone we can in our economy.”

Unfortunately, there is a discrepancy between what is needed politically and actual practice in the working world. Only 75% of people over 55 years of age were in jobs at the end of 2014 compared with more than 90% for those between 25 and 54, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

Supply and demand

Ultimately, the hiring of older workers is a political issue. Not only is the pool of workers shrinking as the Baby Boomers retire, but at the same time, the Swiss voted in February 2014 to limit the number of foreign workers from the European Union. As a result, the cabinet has stated the focus must now be on better tapping the potential of the domestic workforce. A key target is to keep older workers at work.

“None of us knows how the economy will develop over the next ten years, but we all know exactly how the demographics will develop,” says Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss Employers’ Association. “And that’s for me the most amazing thing: most people, also the leaders in our economic system, really don’t recognise what’s going to happen.”

According to RAV’s Widmer, the hiring of older employees is affected by supply and demand. Employers have an idea of who they are looking for, he says, but if they can’t find a young Swiss person to fill their job opening “they are then open if someone older applies.”

What then can be done to change the mindset of Swiss employers?

Learning from each other

In January, Vogt’s association, along with the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, launched “Zukunft Arbeitsmarkt Schweiz” (Future Swiss Job Market), an initiative designed to increase the numbers of old, female, young and disabled among the Swiss workforce.

“We need to basically make sure that we use the potential that we have in the country, and part of that are older employees,” Vogt explains. One third of workers in Switzerland retire early, “and we need to motivate them to work longer”.

Novartis, retailer Migros and the Swiss Federal Railways are examples of three companies developing more flexible options for their older workers. The programme Future Swiss Job Market is designed to communicate the ideas and know-how of such companies through regional events, a web page with examples to download, and sharing of best practices.

“You don’t have to reinvent this stuff, because a lot of companies have already done that work,” Vogt told “For some companies it’s easier to just call another company and say, ‘Can you tell me how you did this? And what are the setbacks you had? Why did it work, and why didn’t it work?’ ” 

At a RAV office in Wohlen, canton Aargau, an initiative called Campaign 50+ is also making headway in the rehiring of older employees, according to a report on Swiss public television, SRF.

The campaign features posters with photos of employees over 50, but instead of listing their age, the poster lists years of experience. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 61% increase in the number of 50-plus workers who found jobs in Wohlen, and a 52% increase in canton Aargau, compared with 15% Swisswide.


There is no single solution, says Valentin Vogt.

“It’s like a puzzle which you have to put together, and all these pieces are little puzzles, and that’s going to make the difference. And it’s not going to be one measure that makes the difference: it’s going to be a thousand measures.”

Finding a new job at an advanced age requires perseverance and a positive attitude. It helps to have a coach.

“We’re taking things step by step,” Theresa Muggli assures her client, Renata Rieder. “It’s going to turn out just fine.”

Swiss companies offer new options for older employees


Through the programme Prime Force, employees who have retired from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis can continue to share their know-how and skills in areas such as research and auditing on an as-needed basis for compensation. Around 65 former employees are currently registered and 35 are actively taking part.


With its Bogenkarriere (Career Arc) programme, Switzerland’s largest retail and supermarket chain and largest employer gives employees the option of reducing their workload, giving up overall management function to oversee a special area, taking over a simpler area, or changing function after a long health-related absence.

Swiss Federal Railways

The state-owned organisation with around 30,000 employees offers several flexible work options, including reducing workload but working past the normal retirement age and a “savings account” for overtime, bonuses and other payments which are accumulated and used later for an extended vacation or to reduce the workload. 

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