Rebooting “When I’m 64”

Tim Whitaker is a consultant in strategic communications and public affairs and previously led communications and marketing at Director level for a range of national high profile organisations in politically sensitive areas. As a self-acknowledged junior baby boomer he’s passionate about the need for a proper policy conversation about demographic trends and the future of work.

Rebooting “When I’m 64”

The New Year saw three newspaper headlines about age. First, the revelation that over 65s will account for half of all employment growth in the next ten years– a “Job boom for older workers” boomed the Daily Express.  Second, news that the fashion and beauty industry’s “shameful side lining” of older consumers could cost it £11bn over the next 20 years - illustrating the growing importance of the “silver economy”. And finally, headlines that an Oxford Don had won his age discrimination case about being made to retire at 69.

We all know we’re becoming an older nation - the stark fact is that in ten years’ time in the UK over one in five of us will be over the age of 65. Ageing is set to become a bigger political issue, but for companies and employees it throws up difficult issues, compounded by what lies ahead is a very mixed and complicated picture.

Despite the media hype about the 11 million millennials aged 18-34, the post 50 age group is nearly the same number, but crucially will grow much faster. Undoubtedly there’s a strong national economic benefit in employing older workers and age participation rates in employment have increased for 55-64-year olds and will increase further and beyond. The argument follows that the economy will be boosted whilst the dependency of retirees on “society” reduced.  So, the future is older, yet we’re not prepared and face major challenges.

Older workers face economic uncertainty.  A quarter of 50-65s are out of work - this amounts to 1 million trying to find work. Moreover 38 per cent of those unemployed over 50 have been unemployed for over 12 months and struggle to get a job because of their age. These trends mask differences in terms of class, gender and geography. A House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee report in 2018 slammed the wastage of this talent of older workers.

Age stereotypes still exist in employment. There are still implicit views that older workers take jobs from the young, are expensive, overqualified, slower, not adaptable to change, resistant to new skills, IT illiterate and not oven ready for world of AI. These attitudes surprisingly persist amongst some recruiters and managers, yet don’t hold up to empirical evidence. Conversely the strengths of older workers and what they bring to the workplace don’t get the same attention. But the risk is the negative attitudes about age and employment become institutionalised and accepted as fact.

Age discrimination is still a taboo subject. Disturbingly age discrimination is felt by older workers. A third believe they’ve been turned down for a job because of their age and many feel disadvantaged because of their age. Yet age discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove and expensive to counter. Many see it as the poor relation of the Equality Act not receiving the same attention as gender, disability and race.

So how do we become better prepared?

Encouraging employers to retain and hire older workers.  Despite the Government’s 2017 Fuller Working Lives report, many organisations don’t pro-actively address the challenge of an ageing workforce. 1 in 5 employers recently surveyed didn’t think ageing in the workforce is being discussed strategically, with a quarter stating they’re unprepared for demographic change.  And a recent CIPD survey revealed only one in five organisations have an age strategy. Witness the challenges facing the NHS where a third of qualified nurses are set to retire in the next ten years. Many organisations lack preparedness for retention and developing and managing an ageing workforce. Managers are frequently ill equipped to promote age diverse teams and don’t extend working lives by developing more flexible working opportunities. Getting more organisations to become “Age Friendly Employers” pioneered by the Centre for Better Ageing is key following the raft of good initiatives on career support, assessing needs, hiring for age positively and creating effective multi-generational workplaces. But making this a reality rather than a nice to do option is the tough challenge.

Ending age barriers and discrimination. Forty per cent of employees surveyed think their workplace has a policy to prevent age discrimination, but nearly a half of those said it made no difference. We need a wider policy and practice debate about the different manifestations of discrimination and extend initiatives preventing discrimination particularly in recruitment.

Better guidance for older workers – to boost the employability of older people. If you’re now aged 50 you face difficult career planning choices with over thirty years ahead for you. The notion of a career for life followed by happy retirement has gone out of the window. A recent survey by the website Restless showed one in three employees wanting to work beyond state pension age –half saying they wanted to out of choice, but 40 percent because they needed to. Good practice suggests a Career Midlife MOT at this age to look at options and managing this. Yet research by Aviva showed 44% of older workers feel unsupported by their employer in looking at their career options. Organisations need to be much more pro-active here and employees being more informed about choices and what they want. And choice is the watchword here – no one is saying that people must work longer. But at present despite some great initiatives on employing older workers, that wider debate about future employment for older people needs to be boosted.