Women in work series. Age discrimination in the office: the women losing jobs because of their age

If you’ve lost your job for being ‘too expensive’ or have left work because you’ve been passed over for promotion, you are not alone: statistics show that more than half of long-term unemployed people are over 50.

Government figures suggest that it is women over 50 who are suffering the most, with a 45 per cent increase in unemployment between 2010 and 2014. This compares with a drop in the number of men of the same age without jobs.

For some women, around the age of 50 is when they want to reboot their careers, as they may have fewer responsibilities if their children have left home.

Ros Sutton: ‘Very subtle age discrimination’

Ros Sutton had a career working for consultancy PwC and when she started a family, decided that work would take somewhat of a back seat. Instead of continuing in her role as a consultant, she chose a less pressured internal job as a trainer and coach at the company.

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I had suddenly become too old and too expensive… age discrimination is a big factor

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Then, when she felt her son was old enough, she decided it was time to find a new job. But there was one problem: her age.

She says: “I chose very much to put my career on a flat level and have that work-life balance, and now I was ready to step up. I was really excited, my son was more independent and I could get on with my career again.

“But every door was shut. I was coming up to 50, and every job you are offered is something you’ve done before. I was thinking, I want to keep moving on, I don’t want to go back.”

Related: New report says older workers overlooked for promotion

Even though age discrimination is illegal, Sutton says hers is not a unique experience. Research carried out by UntappedX, the company she subsequently founded to help ‘second halvers’ with their careers, suggests that redundancy is the biggest reason for people moving jobs after 45.

“You cannot get a job because there is very subtle age discrimination, [so] it is very hard for people in their 50s to get into organisations,” she says.

The research spoke specifically to knowledge workers earning high salaries, but others who are not in professions such as accountancy or law are also finding it hard to get roles that match their experience in their 50s.

Alison Reay: sifted out by young recruiters

Alyson Reay’s first job was as an executive assistant in the City, and she built her career in similar roles – until the 2008 downturn came and she was made redundant in her mid-40s. She then took short-term contracts, but never found a similar permanent role.

Alyson.Reay. Women back to work. Sassy Social Marketing. Press pic
Alyson Reay

“I had suddenly become too old and too expensive… I think age discrimination is a very big factor, and senior executive assistants tend to stay for a long time in their roles as it is difficult to find new jobs.”

She says that she was rejected for one assistant role by an HR team, but ended up being offered the same job 18 months later after she’d worked for the senior executive as a temp.

“I applied for a very senior role with an insurance company… and I was discarded. This particular executive was ‘challenging’ and the successive EAs didn’t last.

“I was invited in to temp for him and he immediately offered me a long, lucrative contract, saying, ‘Why didn’t I meet you 18 months ago?’. When I told him, he was furious.

“I believe that often the sifting out of older, more experienced and expensive EAs is done by young recruiters and HR managers who don’t fully understand the requirements of the post.”

Reay, now 51, has since set up an agency, Sassy Social Marketing, representing small businesses online through social media, email marketing and blogging. It has won Theo Paphitis’ Small Business Sunday award. “I have learned new skills, but the core skill of representing executives, or business owners, remains,” she says.

Related: I became an intern for High50 at the age of 50

Lisa Unwin: reconnect with your contacts

For Lisa Unwin, 50, taking a break meant it was harder to get back into her high-flying career in marketing. She had been passed over for partnership at a management consultancy in her 40s and had quit, after her nanny resigned, to look after her children.

“I thought, this doesn’t compute, to do this job that I’m clearly not valued at because I’ve just had this kick in the face. Luckily I was in the position where I was able to turn around and tell them to stuff it.”

In 2014 Unwin founded She’s Back, an organisation helping women return to work after a break.

“I was listening to the Women’s Hour Power List in 2014 and thought ‘What happened to me?’ and more to the point, ‘What is my plan for the next 20 years?’.

“And then I thought, I’m not on my own here, there are loads of women I know like me that haven’t given up their careers, that moved sideways or had taken less demanding jobs because they needed to be there for their kids.

“There’s all this press about women on boards and needing to get more women on the top, and I thought there is a huge conversation to be had here, about what happened to all the women who left.”

She advises women to use their networks and get on LinkedIn to reconnect with contacts, and to take advantage of who they know: “The difference between a 50-year-old and a 30-year-old is that you know a lot more people who are probably senior in business.”

Tips for getting a job in your 50s

• Get your portfolio ready and think about who you know. “Using your contacts and not the system [where jobs are advertised] because the system doesn’t work,” says Lisa Unwin.

• Think about how you can reinvent yourself. “A friend said to me how pleased she was never to have to go around another circle of reinvention. [But] I have worked out now that people have to do that, they have to learn and change their behaviour as much as everyone else has to change their attitude towards you,” says Ros Sutton.

• Set up on your own, says Alyson Reay: “The lack of suitable jobs that fulfilled me and rewarded me motivated me to go on to set up my own business, and I haven’t looked back. I earn less than I did in the corporate world, but I absolutely love it.”

Take part in the UntappedX survey on people over 45 and the workplace

Coming soon: how to reboot your career at 50