Changing demographics mean people may want or need to work for longer. Yet the oldest members of the workforce are often left behind and unsupported. Mary Bright explores how employers can protect and retain the older workers to combat labour shortages, benefit from their experience and create longer healthier working lives for all.
Recent data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that while unemployment rates are falling, economic inactivity for those aged 50 to 64 has risen. This rise reverses a long-term downward trend and started during the pandemic. For those who understand the value of older workers in society, however, it’s cause for concern.
To tackle this trend, some employers may need to start by changing their perspective when it comes to older workers and realise the benefits that a diverse workforce brings.
With a mindset that consciously looks to avoid ageism, there are a number of practical steps that employers can take, which include implementing policies that accommodate the changing nature of our workforce and provide mechanisms that support “healthy ageing” – meaning actions that enable all workers to lead healthier, longer and more fulfilling working lives.
Older workers and healthy ageing
It has been shown that measures that support healthy ageing and the longevity agenda can have a major direct effect on absenteeism, productivity and retention of valuable experience.
The failure to support older workers and their wellbeing is unsustainable and will limit an individual’s ability to work. Many businesses are now waking up to the issue and are beginning to plan for a successful and beneficial age transition.
A report by 55/Redefined and ProAge revealed that almost two-fifths (39%) of employers admitted to being less likely to recruit people over 50 and only just over a third (35%) would be prepared to retrain staff over that age.
These attitudes present a huge challenge in that older workers looking to stay in or re-enter the labour market. Currently there are a million individuals over 50 who could be in work but aren’t.
The Centre for Ageing Better estimates that 30% of the workforce in the UK are over the age of 50, so this population represents a huge portion of the UK’s skilled labour that will lead to a damaging skill shortage if lost. There are around 700,000 fewer over 50s in work now than we would have expected without the pandemic, and one million people over 50 who could be in work but aren’t.
This is contributing to the huge shortages of labour across multiple sectors and employers are really feeling the strain.
Diversity of thought
It is well known that a more diverse workforce provides better business results. The pursuit of a multi-generational workforce improves diversity of thought, and through bringing together different perspectives we can elevate productivity, business outcomes and employee wellbeing.
Many employment myths about older workers still remain: they are not innovative (yet most successful entrepreneurs are over 40); they take more time off sick (yet those in their 20s are twice as likely to take time off); or they are unable to learn new skills (there is no evidence of this). These myths need to be broken.
By focusing on a holistic strategy of recruit, retrain and retain, employers can do more to support the employment of older workers.
There are already many levers and incentives to adopt including committing to the national living wage for all, reducing poor quality, low-paid and insecure work by axing zero hours and gig economy contracts, introducing reskilling programmes and providing proper sick pay.
But there are three further quick wins that can help create an environment that supports a healthier, ageing workforce.
What employers can do
First, offering flexible work for all from day one. The requirement for roles to be full time, or to delay the option for flexible work is a barrier to some people – across generations. The business case for recruiting from the biggest possible talent pool is obvious – and that means enabling flexible work.
Currently there are a million individuals over 50 who could be in work but aren’t.
Second, offering paid carers’ leave. There is an estimated five million working carers in the UK who are trying to balance working life with caring for a sick, disabled, or elderly person. Research has shown that a woman has a fifty-fifty chance of providing unpaid care by the time they are 46.
The pandemic has only increased this pressure, with many becoming carers overnight, putting an increasing pressure on these members of the labour force. Carers UK report that 600 people leave the workforce each day because of caring responsibilities, paid carers leave can alleviate that talent drain.
Third, putting policies in place to support people going through the menopause can have a real impact. A quarter (25%) of working women going through the menopause consider giving up work due to the symptoms and so far over one million women have already left the workforce.
By breaking the taboo around menopause and normalising it in conversation, employers can really help to tackle this important issue.
This may be done through training line managers to be equipped to support those going through the menopause, embracing policies around flexible working and providing specific packages around sick leave and absence for those who need it.
Longer working lives
Bringing in measures such as these and supporting skills development throughout a working life will show that employers appreciate the value of a multigenerational workforce and that older workers are key to this.
Our longevity think tank Phoenix Insights has found that 10 million people in the UK currently fear they won’t manage to stay in work until the age they want to retire.
This is a huge concern. The need or desire for a longer working life is now a certainty for most – there is no denying it. By waking up to this new reality and putting the right support in the workplace, we can begin a successful and beneficial transition to longer, healthier working lives for all.