I saw a cartoon recently which made me laugh out loud. The Prime Minister was in a hospital standing by the bed of a frail looking white-haired old lady and saying “Don’t worry we’ll soon have you up and about and delivering pizzas”.
The cartoonist had cleverly elided two stories which were in the news; the 7.6m people currently waiting for hospital treatment, and the fact that the pandemic has led to a dramatic fall in the number of over 50s currently in the workforce, reversing a decades long trend of people working beyond normal retirement age.
Why are there now more than 3.5m ‘economically inactive’ people over 50, and what would tempt them back into the workforce, given that our economy desperately needs more workers?
There are three main sources of people to fill job vacancies. The most attractive sources are home grown. If the population stays at a steady replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, there will be a sufficient supply of workers to keep the economy going. In the UK, the current replacement rate of the population is 1.6 children, so clearly we are in trouble. Another obvious source of workers is via immigration, but that has become a political hot potato, so the government has turned its beady eye on the older generation. According to the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions we over 50s should all be encouraged to get back on our bikes, even if it means weaving in and out of the traffic to deliver fast food to people’s homes.
All of which has made me question why so many older people have opted for early retirement during and since the pandemic, and what would need to change in order to either tempt them back to the workforce or to encourage them to continue to work well beyond natural retirement age.
Why did so many over 50s take early retirement in the past 3 years?
It may not be from choice. Many will have lost their jobs either before or after furlough. Applying for jobs after 50 is tough and whilst there are laws forbidding age discrimination in recruitment practices, in reality, your age may count against you.
You are just not well enough to work. That cartoonist may have had a point in juxtaposing ill health and an inability to work. If you are in chronic pain and waiting for much delayed treatment you are very unlikely to be in a fit state to hold down a job.
Having had a taste of not working during the pandemic, you have realised that there is more to life than work. This depends a lot on the state of your finances. If you can afford to fund the life that you want to live without an income from employment, then why not enjoy what may be the best years of your life?
Other people need your time and energy. You may have ageing parents or young grandchildren or a spouse who needs your support. Paid employment may not be flexible enough to fit around the demands of caring for other members of your family in whatever capacity.
The work you have done has rarely been fulfilling or satisfying and you are happy to have stopped doing it. Not everyone sees work as somehow spiritually uplifting. Like me, you may have been brought up with a strong work ethic, but you realise that times have changed and, in Shirley Conran’s immortal phrase ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom.’
However, as a country we still need more people to enter the workforce, so, as someone who has been gainfully employed from 1986 to the present day, what advice would I give to the Secretary of State at the DWP to make a return to work more attractive to people in later life?
1- Understand that everything is interconnected. When my granddaughter Freya was born in 2009 my daughter asked me to look after her for two days a week so that she could return to work part-time. Fortunately, my working patterns allowed for that commitment. As a country we rely on millions of grandparents to look after young children to relieve the burden on families of exorbitant childcare costs.
We also expect very old people to be cared for by their nearest and dearest rather than in state-funded care homes. If you want those same people to contribute to the economy, then maybe you need to acknowledge their worth in unpaid labour as carers, and relieve them of the burden of doing so by providing affordable nursery places and a functioning social care system!
2- Suggest a different model of work. For most of the past three hundred years (since we industrialised), work has been organised by men and for men, and most of those men were married to women. ‘Breadwinners’ travelled to their place of work between set hours in a system that was hierarchically structured. Presenteeism was valued as you needed to be monitored and managed in case you were shirking. After the birth of their children, women were sometimes offered part-time employment but this was the death-knell for their promotion prospects.
I waited for twelve years after my children were born before I felt able to commit to full-time employment when I was 38 years old. For the next 10 years my working patterns followed the ‘industrial’ male model described above. I then set up my own business which allowed me to work in a completely different and very much more flexible way. This pattern of working has, happily for me, continued to this day. And they’re the working practices that we now have for everyone at LFF since we emerged from the pandemic. I would suggest that this approach might be more attractive to older workers:
a) Stop measuring ‘presenteeism’ and inputs (activity) and measure outputs (results) instead. Older people at work have a reputation for being very reliable. So, agree what needs doing and trust them to do it. As a manager, you’ll soon know if someone is not doing what’s needed.
b) Allow people to work from home if they can and if it suits them. Commuting is tiring, expensive and time-consuming. Studies show that people often work more productively at home because they are less distracted by their colleagues and they may even work longer than their designated hours, especially if they feel motivated and valued.
c) Stop equating flexible work practices including part-time work and job-shares as less valuable than full-time positions. Make sure that your older workers don’t become second-class citizens if they work flexibly.
3. And finally, tackle ageism in the workplace. As a society we haven’t properly adjusted to the fact that people are living for longer and will therefore have to work for longer in order to fund their old age. How supportive and welcoming are workplaces to their older workers and how open are their recruitment practices towards people over 50? CEO of Reed Recruitment, James Reed admits that it can become increasingly difficult to find new employment the older you are: "Despite legislation to prevent age discrimination, older job seekers can still face bias," Reed suggests shifting the focus away from your age and onto your ability wherever you can and removing dates from your education and employment history from your CV when you apply for work.
I’m fairly sure that no government minister grappling with this problem would be interested in my experience of working well beyond normal retirement age, but if they were, I’d tell them that choice, control and flexibility are key. Work can give you purpose, social contact with a diverse range of people, a sense of achievement and some much needed extra cash. But it can also be exhausting and impossible to manage with the other demands on your time.
If this ‘Over 50s Back to Work’ initiative is to succeed then much needs to change both in terms of workplace culture and wider government support. Just suggesting that older people consider becoming a self-employed Deliveroo rider with low pay and no job security won’t cut the mustard.
I’d love to hear from those of you who are still working - and those who have decided to take early retirement. What is your experience and what would make your working life easier now that you are older? Do leave a comment below.
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Friday 14th September
Film Club: Little Women
Available on Amazon Prime & Netflix
Watch the film beforehand and join us for a group discussion!
Day: Friday 14th September 2023
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB