We’re wasting the talents of older workers

First published in The Times; 25th May 2017. © The Times

So says Jenni Russell of The Times, in a recent article. Jenni has been kind enough to allow us to use the article, and it echoes what we hear on a very regular basis. Job seekers, who are frustrated with attraction channels that remove talent before employers get the chance to consider them for an open role, or those in work, being overlooked for a merited promotion. I heard a very personal example of this from a former work colleague, working in New York, recently, where age was used as a blatant obstacle to progression.

Such omissions are ill-advised and mis-guided. The depth and breadth of a demographic pool of resource, that is largely untapped and overlooked, can be a great asset to an employer. Just read through Jenni’s friend’s experience below and it’s clear that employers are missing out.

Last year a creative, energetic, 53-year-old friend of mine finally gave up trying to rebuild her career. She had been a highly successful teacher for 20 years, in between bringing up her children and accompanying her husband as he worked abroad. On her return to England she applied for the kinds of jobs she had had no trouble getting in the past. She had excellent references but she wasn’t offered a single interview. Her teaching friends were unsurprised. “You’re too old”, they said. Schools with squeezed budgets don’t want experience, they want the cheap new teachers at the bottom of the pay scale.

She found a part-time, entry-level job at a charity for troubled families in the hope that it would be the start of something new. It was a disorganised, quarrelsome office and she was the oldest in it by 15 years. She became its backbone, volunteering extra hours without pay, identifying inefficiencies, building relationships with distraught clients, tactfully ensuring that it worked much more smoothly.

Yet despite three applications for promotion over two years, younger, less educated, less competent people got the jobs instead. When she heard about the government’s recent initiative to take skilled graduates directly into social work, much as Teach First does in schools, she thought she had identified the ideal role. Her years of teaching deprived children, her experience at the charity and the insights she had gained from living in different cultures over 30 years were all highly relevant. She was turned down flat at the initial application stage. The only plausible reason was age.

The cumulative rejections have left her feeling shrunken, useless and sad. She feels written off by the working world, although she’s 13 years from retirement age, only two thirds of the way through her expected lifespan, and has more time and energy for work than she has ever had before.

Ageism like this is rampant in Britain, wrecking people’s later lives, creating an alarming gap for individuals between the end of paid work and the start of the state pension, making holes in the economy as people stop contributing to taxes and growth, and wasting an immense resource of skill, knowledge and goodwill.

From their early 50s onwards, people start disappearing from the workforce in large numbers: 80 per cent of 53-year-olds are employed, but less than half of the population still have jobs in the year before they qualify for a state pension. Most of those who stop working have no choice. Some 57 per cent of 50- to 59-year-olds who leave their jobs are forced out, much higher than in any other age group. The redundancy rate for 60- to 64-year-olds is twice as high as for those aged 16 to 49.

The insidious discrimination begins early. Many employers don’t bother to upgrade the skills of older staff. Two years ago, Age UK reported that fewer than a fifth of over-50s had been given workplace training in the last month, but almost two fifths of 35- to 49-year-olds had.

Once out of a job, the over-50s are less likely than any other age group to find another job swiftly. Almost half of those unemployed have been job hunting for a year or more, compared with a third for all British adults. Two years ago Anglia Ruskin University demonstrated the prejudice they face. The university sent out pairs of CVs in response to 2,000 job vacancies. The fake candidates were equally skilled but one was 28 and one 50. The 28-year-old was four times more likely to get an interview.

Experiences like these have left many unemployed over-50s scarred and pessimistic. Only a quarter of those between 50 and state retirement consider themselves retired but well over half think it unlikely they will ever work again.

This is a crisis for the country, not just for individuals. In the next decade the working population will increase by three per cent but the number of over-65s will rise by 39 per cent. Half of all adults will be over 50 by 2030. Unless more people work for longer everyone’s living standards will fall as the ratio of dependants to workers shoots up. Brexit has given this problem added urgency since the flow of cheap skilled workers will dry up.

Everyone has understood this problem for a long time; the difficulty has been in getting employers to act. Yes, some employers may have to review policy to provide some sorts of adjustments, but such flexibility is in demand from all age groups, including young families.

The good news is that more employers are recognising that age is an important item on the diversity agenda. So long overlooked, and not ‘strategized’ in to a company’s inclusion approach, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a focus on age can also support other diversity and inclusion objectives. After all, are there older women, older LGBT people, who want an equal opportunity?

2018-10-03T15:10:49+00:00