With the UK job market experiencing record numbers of vacancies, you’d think this would be a boon for any employee looking for a job, right?

Although there are plenty of job vacancies out there to choose from, it seems one age group in particular feels frozen out, with recent data from the ONS highlighting a sharp rise in older workers leaving the UK workforce since the start of the pandemic. Since March 2020, the number of ‘economically inactive’ 50-64 year olds has risen by almost 250,000 – and this trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.Value older workers illustration

Given that the UK is in the grip of a labour shortage, it’s curious to discover that so many people are leaving the workforce. Of course, many employees unfortunately lost their jobs due to the economic effects of the pandemic. But, of all the working age groups to become unemployed across all industries between December 2020 and February 2021, those aged 50-64 were the hardest hit, with fewer than two in three managing to return to work within six months.

Aside from the economic shock of the pandemic, Stuart Lewis, chief executive of online community for the over 50s Rest Less, believes many over 50s were leaving the workforce because they had suffered “constant knock-backs in the recruitment process.” As a result, more and more over the age of 50 were simply giving up looking for work altogether or choosing to retire early.

It’s also been reported that employees within this age group are more likely to have missed out on formal workplace training, meaning they may lack the necessary skills to either find new jobs or advance up the career ladder. Could all these elements combined be causing the current exodus of older workers?

Unfairly pushed out to pasture

Taking the decision to leave the world of work is not only bad news for the individuals concerned –it’s also a huge problem for the British economy.

Despite all the hype about Artificial Intelligence and robots coming to take over our jobs, the labour shortage isn’t going to go away overnight. Skills gaps are already being felt, and many businesses are struggling to fill their vacancies: hospitality, horticulture, meat and dairy, logistics (lorry driving in particular), social care and IT services are finding it more difficult than most.

Make no mistake: employers and the British economy need older workers.

So, if organisations want to attract and keep hold of a valuable, experienced talent pool, HR practitioners need to look closely at how they can make policies and processes more inclusive and what they can do to make the workplace a more ‘friendly’ environment.

1. Avoid making assumptions

It could be argued that there’s an underlying (and unfair) assumption that anyone who’s 50 plus won’t be particularly tech-savvy. That they will be slow to pick up new systems, or that they will be resistant to change and unable to embrace new ways of doing things. However, this simply isn’t the case!

For example, Dropbox conducted a survey of more than 4,000 IT workers and found that people over age 55 are actually less likely than their younger colleagues to find using tech in the workplace stressful. In addition, only 13% of respondents aged 55 and older reported having trouble working with multiple devices, compared to 37% of 18 to 34-year olds.

Managers need to be encouraged to treat people as individuals. They also may need to step back from potential unconscious biases about older workers and look at how best they can maximise their strengths and talents within the team. Making a conscious effort to build an environment where social ties are strong, and everyone is valued for their contribution is also key.

2. Take a fresh look at career development

It’s also wrong to assume that older workers are on a slow path to retirement, sitting it out and coasting along until it’s time to leave.

As the average age of a population increases, so does its workforce, with data from the DWP finding that the employment rates for those aged 50 to 64 increased from 55.8% in 1984 to 72% in 2020. For those aged 65 and over, the employment rate increased from 4.9% in 1984 to 10.4% in 2020. Despite the pandemic, there is a steady rise in the average age of the workforce, and this is something that industries are going to have to adapt to.

There will of course be some employees who do wish to take their foot off the career accelerator, but there are plenty of over-50s who are still driven, ambitious and regard themselves as far from finished. HR needs to investigate new models of career management that consider the differing aspirations and capabilities of older workers.

A good case in point is The Centre for Aging Better who piloted the concept of a ‘Career MOT’ at 50. Instead of just focusing on retirement and winding down, it took a more holistic look at work, wealth and wellbeing. Could this be something that your own employees would find valuable – especially if you have a larger proportion of older workers?

3. Embrace flexibility

In its recent report ‘Aging Gracefully: The Opportunities of an Older Workforce’, the CIPD highlights the importance of embracing flexible working. For example, ‘Baby Boomer’ workers may well need to juggle work with caring responsibilities, often finding themselves responsible for both elderly parents and older still-dependent children.

Like any other generation, they may also want to work more flexibly in order to build a side-hustle business, develop new skills or pursue leisure interests. Some may want to downshift and work reduced hours in later working life. It is widely accepted that a transition into retirement is better for overall wellbeing than a sudden cut-off. Again, the key is to have the conversation and find a flexible working solution that works for both the individual and the organisation.

4. Rethink job design

HR also has a role to play in looking at how jobs are designed and helping the organisation see that there are opportunities beyond the conventional job role. Older workers often want a different kind of role as they progress into later stages of their career.

While some are still hungry for the big bucks and the big responsibilities, others may feel their talents are better used in more of a consultancy role. Research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education found that Baby Boomer workers were often keen to take on more of a mentoring role,  or to act as advisers on projects where they had a wealth of experience to bring.

The challenge here is to shift mindsets and help the business explore how it can make best use of the talents of its older workers.

5. Build multi-generational management capability

There’s no doubt that managing across the generations brings challenges as well as opportunities. Already, we are seeing an increasing number of teams in the workplace comprised of three, maybe even four generations, all of whom have very different desires and expectations around work and the way they want to be led and managed.

To give you an idea, younger managers may be apprehensive about how to lead older and often more experienced colleagues. Team leaders may need help with managing conflict between colleagues who might have very different values and ways of approaching work (although that of course isn’t necessarily a generational issue).

Line managers may also need support in how to manage flexible teams and build cohesion among their people. HR needs to look at how it can best support managers charged with leading these multi-generational teams – whether that is through formal training designed to take their management skills up a gear or coaching to help them maximise the potential of all their people.

The growing number of older workers leaving the workforce suggests that organisations are failing to meet their needs. Employers need to act fast to find ways of making the workplace more welcoming and inclusive – or risk losing out on a wealth of talent and experience that could not only support their businesses going into the future, but also put an end to the current labour shortage.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.