The Great Retirement - why older people are leaving the workforce in droves, part two

Ageism should never be tolerated, but with an ongoing skills shortage, it is particularly important that we retain the wisdom and perspective of older workers.

Before reading the below, catch up on part one of this story here.


Challenging myths

HR must not only eradicate ageism, but also ensure a positive employee experience where all generations of the workforce feel valued and appreciated. Making this more challenging is the barrage of myths surrounding intergenerational conflict, which the media often stokes.

Headlines such as “Millennials vs. Gen X: who spends more time working and who spends more time spending?” and “Age wars rage as workers return to office” frequently top the homepages of both consumer and business titles, leaving well-meaning HR professionals scratching their heads trying to understand the nuances of each age group.

Emily Andrews, deputy director of evidence at the Centre for Ageing Better, however argues this conflict is often hugely exaggerated, with employees of all ages wanting similar perks.

She says: “Our research tells us what we want is the same thing: a decent salary, a meaningful purpose and a stimulating and sociable environment that flexes as our needs change. Our lives may change, but our broader aspirations and desires aren’t defined by when we were born.”

The UK's Great Retirement - a timeline:

June 2018 - 23 million will work beyond the age of 65

July 2020 - Recruiters say chancellor’s plan for jobs overlooks other critical groups

August 2020 - Pandemic forces early retirement in over 50s

November 2020 - Employers ignoring retiring workers due to coronavirus

October 2021 - Ageism blocking benefits of an intergenerational workforce

November 2021 - Older workers hide age to beat bias

Rather than assuming younger workers will want free drinks on a Friday and older workers want higher pension contributions, Andrews instead wants more employers to consider that the policies brought in for older workers will have a knock-on effect for future generations.

She adds: “One of the biggest changes in the modern workplace is the increase of people working into their 60s – and that is a change that will impact all generations going forward. So, creating policies which support older workers to be successful and fulfilled in work will ultimately benefit all employees, as well as their employers.

“Good flexible working practices are highly effective in encouraging and supporting older workers to stay in work – but everyone benefits from more freedom and flexibility.”

ONS data found 39% of over-50s who left the labour market said they would consider returning, with flexible working as the main motivator. In fact, The Centre for Ageing Better recommends flexible working as the single biggest change employers make to support older workers.

Bajorek also points to everyday employee concerns, such as health or wealth, which occur regardless of age. She says: “The pandemic has been a great leveller in that it has highlighted the fact that everyone in the workforce has their own set of personal circumstances, yet these don’t come down to age. They could be working carers, people with various conditions, or problems around financial wellbeing.

“Organisations have to wake up to all of their workforce and their needs. With the job market as it is, people will leave, so it’s time for organisations to listen.”

Perry Timms, founder of PTHR consultancy, warns HR to avoid introducing novelty perks to appeal to different age brackets. He says: “There are those tokenistic gestures that employers do to appeal to certain generations, but we need to move past it. Don’t offer pathetic perks, but instead open your mind to what different generations can bring to your workforce.”

HR must also be aware that employee wants will alter as the business evolves, Gannon advises, so seeing employees as complex individuals is vital.

She says: “It is important to take into account the diversity and uniqueness of your colleagues, and how the wants and needs of one individual can be entirely different to those of their peers in the same and different generations.”

“Organisations have to wake up to all of their workforce and their needs."

Dr Martens is just one of many organisations working hard to make the most of the differing skills of its multigenerational workforce. It runs a Cobbs Lane Factory apprenticeship programme to develop shoemakers of the future, utilising the knowledge of long-term employees at the heart of the shoe design and development process.

Pets at Home similarly encourages multigenerational learnings. Stonier adds: “The key to helping multigenerational colleagues to get along is to focus on the things that join us together. You can really see this in action across our stores, where we often have four generations working together united by their love of pets, our purpose and our values.

“In our stores we create pairs of mentors from different generations creating an open, two-way dialogue, affording the opportunity to learn from each other. This raises awareness and fosters understanding between generational groups.

“The key, however, is to focus on what works best for each person. It is also important to not use stereotypes too broadly – you must recognise that preferences vary within the generations too.”


Plan for the future

Despite the large increase of older workers leaving the workforce for good, there’s no doubt that some employees will have no choice but to work up until state pension age and beyond, which Age UK predicts will rise from 66 to 67 by 2028.

Causing this is a range of environmental and societal factors, many of which are outside the control of the employer. The average age of a first-time home buyer is now 32, employees are having children later in life, and modern medicine means many employees are now working with illnesses which may have previously forced them into retirement.

It’s no surprise then that in the not-too-distant future, HR will be dealing with workforces containing up to six generations. How it prepares for this variation will therefore be fundamental to future business success.

HR teams must first always ensure they are making older workers feel supported, integrated and appreciated, Gannon says. “We know that one of the biggest barriers can be a lack of knowledge of new systems and technologies, so education is always the first step when implementing these new technologies, such as financial and supply chain systems.

“We use a rigorous change management and training process to ensure all our staff are given the tools they need to effectively utilise these changes, with a clear understanding of business benefits and that there is something in it for them.”

Employee feedback will also be vital as the workplace accommodates a wider range of voices, she adds.

“Organisations should make sure they have good feedback systems in place and engage with them regularly. We have a regular process of seeking feedback through different listening forums, including engagement surveys and inclusion sessions.”

It may also be useful to create exit strategies such as phased retirement plans to allow employees to gradually reduce their work hours.

Stonier says: “Older colleagues bring a lot to the workplace and ensuring that their knowledge is recognised and passed on before they retire is vital. Employers should make the most of this pool of talent – they’ve been around longer and have lots of wisdom to share.

“[Exit strategies] can also benefit a company if the employee is one of their top performers. Ultimately it is critical to engender a culture of openness, acceptance, and communication so that everyone, regardless of age, feels like a valued member of the team.”

For Stonier, though the challenge of ageism and older workers leaving the workforce is vast, so too are the learning opportunities which may come from tackling them head on.

“Companies must find a balance between making sure that their culture values experience, while also encouraging and cultivating a ‘new starter mindset,’ she says.

“This can be tricky to maintain but it really helps to ensure that the team stays fresh and dynamic – bringing the very best of all generations to the workplace.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take lifetime to learn that a workplace which embraces diversity is a workplace that works for all.


Find part one of this cover story here. 

This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.