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Why Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce

The assumptions being made about older workers are astounding. These play a key factor in why many are ‘cashing out’ early

Baby Boomers had a voice and a place in society as teenagers. And most have had a privileged life in the job market, with the greatest part of their working lives having been spent in a reasonably stable economy.

However, research conducted with the over-50s has found 60% of those planning to give up work want to do so before pension payout dates. According to 2017 Prudential research, 'many are willing to take a hit on their expected retirement income in exchange for giving up the daily grind, to the tune of £1,250 a year' (£17,650 total compared to £18,900 if they stay). Given the average 55-year-old can expect to live another 30 years or more that’s one heck of a sacrifice.

Over-50s hold 75% of the UK’s housing wealth and many are cashing in their kids’ inheritance to free them from work. The Equity Release Council reported older homeowners unlocked a record £393 million from properties in 2016. But leaving work early and selling off assets could leave older people cash-strapped as they live well into their eighties and even nineties.

So why are the over-50s leaving work? There are a number of reasons:

  • Expectations, values systems, attitudes to retirement and how they want to spend their later years are different
  • They don’t want to be invisible, labelled as or treated as ‘older'
  • Work is not giving them what they need. Twenty-seven per cent believe their employer values youth above experience and knowledge
  • They’re not happy. Only 14% say workplace culture is positive towards them.

Is it any wonder then that those who can afford to are ‘escaping’ work?

Through my work with HR professionals, business leaders and management teams, I have seen many assumptions being made about older workers and they are astounding. These assumptions play a large factor in why so many are ‘cashing out’ early.

It’s no secret that the UK has a massive productivity problem, and is a strategic focus of the government’s Industrial Strategy. Baroness Prosser recently claimed that “the productivity problem won’t be solved unless employees are given a collective voice in work”. And who knows what’s going on and what works for the business better than employees who have been there a long time? Yet often the voice of older workers is ignored or given less weight.

Prosser also said: “I think there’s an attitude in business – and encouraged by the government – to make the fastest buck as quick as we can.” That, in my eyes, encourages businesses to get rid of expensive older people and recruit younger, cheaper ones. This is evident in national redundancy figures and the numbers of over-50s classed as ‘economically inactive’.

Many employers don’t invest in training and development for their over-50s either. Even worse, they make assumptions about capability and motivation after a certain age and give them less challenging work. Or take them off the frontline or nudge them into early retirement/redundancy because they don’t fit with the company’s image.

But over-50s are increasingly digitally- and technologically-aware. Half the population will be over 50 in the next few years, accounting for 57.5% of all sales growth by 2025. Many over-50s are still ambitious, energetic, committed to doing a great job, and have aspirations to continue to grow, develop and achieve promotions and recognition. Ignoring both their working and spending power will be bad for business.

Engagement is also a major problem; the UK dropped 2% among global rankings last year. How many HR professionals specifically measure the engagement levels of their over-50s? How many encourage managers and supervisors to talk openly with their older workers and uncover specific needs? Logically we know diversity and inclusion helps businesses to thrive. It’s good and moral people management and there’s a legal requirement to ensure no group is put at a disadvantage, but ‘one-size-fits-all’ management doesn’t cut it.

Workers aged 50 and above will increase from 25% to 31% of the workforce by 2020 so HR professionals have some challenges ahead:

  • Encouraging older workers to want to stay at work (and not just the ones who have to, often grudgingly)
  • Finding out why people are choosing to leave early and retaining them where possible
  • Ensuring recruitment strategies are accessible to older people, and that any bias is removed from the process
  • Tackling ageism and bias in the workplace. Currently 58% of employees believe ageism is widespread at work.

Most importantly, it's important to remember that happiness plus job satisfaction equals engaged, productive staff – whatever their age.

Lindsay Cameron is director of The Next Steps