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

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.

Wisdom is the daughter of experience, so we’re told. And it’s this experience which enables us to make good judgements throughout our careers so we’re doing right by our colleagues, the business and our environment.

It should therefore be a major cause for concern that this wisdom is leaking out of the workforce in the shape of older workers retiring.

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

The number of older workers (those aged between 55 and 64) out of a job and not looking for work has risen by 586,000 since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, reversing decades of steady gains for the over-50s in Britain’s workforce.

According to think tank The Resolution Foundation, participation in the UK workforce fell by 1.2 percentage points among older workers, by the three months to August 2021. This is unusual given their participation increased during the financial crisis by 1.4 points.

The story gets particularly dark for older women’s employment relative to previous recessions. The employment rate of women in their 50s fell by 2.1 percentage points.

In short, the mass exodus represents the biggest drop in this age group in any recession for the past 40 years. This sits in the context of employers struggling to recruit, with 1.2 million job vacancies in the three months to November 2021 recorded by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

More than half of businesses who reported a worker shortage also said they were unable to meet demands.

Is HR therefore doing enough to keep older workers in the employment? And if so, given we are all living and working longer, are there specific policies in place to cater not just for an ageing workforce but also potentially a more diverse workforce as more generations are thrown into the mix?


Lazy assumptions

Human beings have allowed assumptions to shape decision-making for centuries; they are a survival technique we have developed to let us stay alive.

If it weren’t for assumptions, we wouldn’t know which mushroom is poisonous or that the fluffy brown bear is not as cuddly as it appears.

Yet they can be catastrophic in the context of the workplace. Expecting an older worker not to know their TikTok from
their tic-tac-toe not only undermines a potential skill set, but may also diminish how valued and respected an employee feels within an organisation.

An unfortunate trend, according to Helen Giles, director of people and culture at Respite Revitalise Holidays, is managers overlooking older workers for training and development, wrongly assuming it’s just younger workers who are hungry for progression.

She says: “The sense of development is a very powerful motivator, and managers often think of younger rather than older workers wanting to take on learning roles.

“Older workers perhaps don’t push themselves forward for these because they can feel this assumption, but in my experience when people have been given interest and support, they really like it.”

Conversations around diversity and inclusion in and out of the workplace often focus on race, gender, sexuality or disability. Yet despite age also appearing as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, Giles argues it’s seldom discussed in the same vein.

She adds: “HR needs to recognise that inclusion is about including everyone, getting people to recognise that there are stereotypes about age that aren’t talked about in the same way [as other protected characteristics].

“Age should be more of a pillar in a diversity and inclusion strategy. It makes good business sense during a massive recruitment crisis and we need people to consider retiring later or coming back from retirement.”

Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies references the powerful social movements for other protected characteristics such as #MeToo and BLM, and the comparative lack of appetite to see age talked about within the EDI agenda.

She says: “People just don’t talk about age in the same way yet there’s enough evidence out there to show it should be. It’s just not in other people’s consciousness in the same way.

“And despite the labour market statistics showing lots of older workers are dropping out of the market, there seems
to be a lot more emphasis being put on younger workers and the great resignation – why aren’t they looking at the great retirement instead?”

'There are stereotypes about age that aren’t talked about in the same way as other protected characteristics.'

Office for National Statistics sample data revealed retirement was the most common reason (47%) why workers aged 50 to 70 in Great Britain left their job since the start of the pandemic. This was followed by the pandemic (15%), illness or disability (13%) and stress or mental health reasons (10%).

As these older employees leave the workforce, the current skills gaps already causing HR headaches continues to widen, Bajorek warns. “It seems to me we’re reacting to people leaving the workplace rather than focusing on it. I’m worried we won’t have enough decent workers in the workplace and that lots of organisational memory and knowledge is being lost.”

And where there’s a knowledge loss, businesses suffer. HM Treasury figures predict a 1% increase in the number of people aged 50 to 64 in work could increase GDP by around £5.7 billion per year and have a positive impact on income tax and National Insurance contributions by around £800 million per year. The cost of neglecting older workers could therefore be catastrophic.


Candidates’ market

With a record number of vacancies and employers eager to retain their top talent, the current job market is often referred to as a candidate’s market, with job seekers offered higher salaries and lots of great perks. Yet this label may not apply if you fall under the older worker bracket, with one in three workers believing their age disadvantages them in applying for jobs, according to the Centre for Ageing Better.

Louise Stonier, chief people and culture officer at Pets at Home, says recruitment is often the first of many ways ageism rears its ugly head.

She says: “Job applications can often favour younger applicants, which could demotivate older workers from even applying.

“Using terms like digital native can be alienating to some generations and can be interpreted as code for ‘they don’t want me because I’m too old’. It’s really important that companies look at how they word job specifications and approach the hiring process so that they are as inclusive as possible.”

Sue Gannon, chief HR officer at Dr Martens says ageism in the workplace still unfortunately exists in most sectors.

“This often begins at the recruitment process, where younger applicants can be favoured, and again at later stages when more mature employees can be overlooked when promoting internally. It can often exist the other way too, where younger employees can be considered lacking in experience and expertise to be successful.

The shoe manufacturer has been using its signature rubber soles to stamp out ageism by adopting inclusive hiring practices, ensuring teams are made up of several generations and bias awareness courses.

Gannon adds: “We aim to highlight the positivity behind the generational gaps with those
from the older generations encouraged to pass on their learnings and wisdom through our apprenticeship programme.”


Check back tomorrow for part two of this cover story.


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.