Over 50s in the workplace

The over 50s have proven to be the powerhouse of UK employment growth over the last decade. So what are employers doing to engage with age in the workforce?

We talk to Stuart Lewis, the Founder and Chief Executive at Rest Less, the digital community that helps those in their 50s, 60s and beyond find fulfilling opportunities to work, volunteer or find a new career path.

In its latest announcement on employment figures, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) told us that the UK’s employment rates are the highest on record.  This is fantastic news for our economy but also on a more human level when we look at our friends, family and connections around us and can celebrate the fact that more of us than ever before are employed. Even those of us with a love/hate relationship with our own jobs can take solace from the fact that many of life’s greatest challenges, such as loneliness and depression, are much lower amongst the employed than the unemployed.

So what’s driven this consistent growth in employment?  Recent analysis from Rest Less might surprise you. Our analysis of the ONS’s labour market statistics showed  that there are approximately three million more people in work today than there were 10 years ago, and nearly 80 percent of them are over 50.

Scratching a bit further below the surface, we found that 42 per cent of all growth in UK employment was down to women over the age of 50 (compared with 35 percent from men over 50).  Even more profound is the fact that the number of female over 65s who are working today has doubled compared with 10 years ago.

There are many socio-economic reasons to explain this. Firstly as a society we are living longer and longer lives, requiring more funding and therefore either higher earnings or a longer working life. This need to fund a longer retirement is what has fed through into state pension age increases for most developed countries. For UK women in particular, the rapid equalisation of the state pension age over the last seven years has forced many women to continue working into their later years and is one of the primary drivers of their notable impact on the UKs employment growth over the last decade.

Secondly, and more positively is that with ever growing research suggesting that retirement is bad for your health, many are choosing to stay actively employed for the health and wellbeing benefits of doing so. The abolition of a compulsory retirement age in 2011 was a watershed moment, levelling the legal playing field and simultaneously presiding over a surge in over 65s who wanted to continue to work out of choice.

Taking into consideration the fact that the ONS expects the number of over 50s to increase by 2.7 million over the next 10 years, whilst the number of individuals aged between 20 to 49 will be broadly flat or lower, we have to prepare the workplace for some pretty profound changes. As a starter, the average employee’s age will rise notably and existing cultural norms around retirement age etc will be forced to adapt. Over the next decade we should come to expect, and embrace, much more grey hair around the office!  On a deep societal level – even just to maintain current rates of national employment – attitudes need to change and we must get ready to embrace millions more older workers in the workplace, ensuring we are creating enough attractive career and employment opportunities for this audience.

With growing numbers of over 50s, 60s and 70s in employment  – businesses are presented with an incredible opportunity to harness the experience and flexibility that many in this age category bring to a role. Yet frustratingly, we are seeing an employment sector fall behind the curve of the sweeping demographic changes that our society is experiencing and struggling to get a hold of what needs to be done to support this segment of the workforce.

Most large employers today have a diversity plan that includes gender, ethnicity, sexual preference and disability, but few have plans in place to attract and engage the underrepresented older worker – which is hugely surprising given the seismic demographic shifts we are seeing. Whilst age is legally also a ‘protected characteristic’ too, rarely are there policies – or training for that matter – in place to properly support an older demographic of workers.

We hear too many sad stories from our members who are facing active discrimination whilst applying for new roles and are on the whole, feeling shut out of and ignored by the workplace.  Many have had to go to desperate lengths: taking significantly lower paid work, setting up their own businesses through necessity rather than want and even moving abroad to countries where attitudes to older workers are more progressive than ours right now.More employers need to embrace the opportunity presented by this talented and flexible segment of the workforce and offer tailored and proactive policies such as flexible working and appropriate managerial training to address ageist attitudes and prejudice. The creation of many more mainstream later life apprenticeships and return to work schemes are also essential to turn what might appear as a daunting hard slog, into an opportunity to forge an exciting new career path – whatever a person’s age.

The UK’s population is ageing rapidly. The sooner employers adapt to take advantage of this incredible opportunity, the better off we all as a society will be.

Stuart Lewis

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Rest Less