Working out the workforce

BMW worker doing stretching exercises
Image caption Siegfried Wirle going through his paces on the BMW shopfloor.

It's not quite what you expect on a relentless production line in a BMW plant in Bavaria: as the shells of cars trundle by, a sixty-year old man in his company overalls bends and stretches under the instruction of a young physiotherapist in a white coat.

"Once more," she urges as she puts Siegfried Wirle through his exercises.

He grunts and contorts and flexes to keep his muscles supple, all the better to return to his working tasks. "Exercise is the most important thing for employees to keep their working life going," the ageing worker says.

It's one of the ways in which the huge plant at Dingolfing has been adapted to make the working lives of its 18,000 employees better - or at least longer.

The physiotherapist, Christine Slauch, explained the rationale to the BBC: "The work they do is repetitive. The muscles and bones are always used in the same way, so we try to have counter-movement to relax the muscles stressed during the work."

So is it for the benefit of the worker or for the benefit of the company? "Both are important," she says. "Of course, the company profits. If the company doesn't profit it won't do it, but if there's no profit for the workers there's no profit for the company."

Stress cut

Apart from the exercises on the shop floor and in gyms near the assembly lines, the work-stations where workers sit and stand have been modified to minimise stretching and awkward movement.

There's more daylight - where most factories don't have windows, Dingolfing does, and psychologists say this cuts stress.

Workers can see each other and this, too, reduces stress, according to the doctors who redesigned the factory with age in mind.

There's also much more flexibility to the speed of the assembly line. "It removes stress from the operator," said manager, Barbara Bergmeier. "If you think that you're the slowest component of the system, it really creates stress for you. If you consider that if you make a defect, the whole shift has to do half an hour overtime to get the volume - that's a source of stress."

Fewer young workers

The changes are the result of BMW's analysis of the implications of the demographics of work in Germany (demographics which are mirrored throughout the industrial world).

The falling birth rate thirty years ago means fewer younger workers coming through. In response, the government has raised the retirement age, before which people can't get a pension from the state, to 67.

Around the world, BMW employs 96,000, three-quarters of them in Germany. With the changing demographics, the average age is around 40 but it expects that to rise to 46 by 2020.

At the moment, a quarter of its staff are over 50 but that will rise to nearly half in the next decade. It's working on the assumption that in many German companies more than half the workforce will be older than fifty by 2015.

For the unions at BMW, there was a dilemma: for decades they had fought for shorter working lives, so should they cooperate in getting people to work longer or should they fight against it as they had done instinctively for so long?

Image caption BMW is not alone in having to learn to live with an ageing workforce

'Political law'

Stefan Schmid, the leader of the works council at the plant, says his union fought the fight against a rising national retirement age and lost when the law changed.

He said it was not the union's law but they had to live within it: "We have a law, and I have to take this law and do the best. It's not a union law. It's a political law."

So the union aim is to make the working conditions they have to live with as palatable as possible: "We want a situation where people can work their whole long life in a nearly stress-free way," he told the BBC.

"If you are sixty years old everybody knows it's not possible. But we want to bring younger people to this workplace too and to know that they can grow older healthily."

Germany is similar to many industrial countries in facing this demographic difficulty for its workers. In Britain, France and Spain, too, the retirement age before people can't get state pensions is rising to 67.

For decades, the general assumption was that retirement ages would fall with economic progress. That is now not so. It's true that many people might quite like to work for longer, but many, perhaps in physically demanding jobs up ladders and down holes, might hate the prospect of having to work until they drop.

Either way, the new reality is that many will work longer than their parents did. Like it or not, it is the new reality.