· News

Age discrimination driving over-50s to self-employment

The number of over-50s working for themselves has risen dramatically, but research warns this is partly down to a lack of support in traditional employment

Almost half (46%) of the self-employed workforce are now aged 50 or older, according to research from Rest Less, a job and volunteering site for older people.

Its analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data for the first three months of 2019 found that there are now 2.27 million over-50s who are self-employed. This is up from 1.45 million 10 years ago, an increase of 57% in a decade.

Additionally nearly one in five (19%) self-employed individuals are aged 60 or older. The research found that the number of over-60s who are self-employed increased from 579,000 in 2009 to 949,000 in 2019, an increase of 64% in the last 10 years.

Stuart Lewis, founder and CEO of Rest Less, said that this trend is partly due to age discrimination in the workplace and a lack of flexible working options. “Many people in their 50s and 60s can feel left behind and ignored because of their age. For those who have had to take time out of their careers, perhaps to look after grandchildren or an elderly relative, it can be much harder than it should be to open doors back into the workplace,” he said.

“Sadly, with age discrimination still alive and well, we are seeing more and more over-50s finding they have no choice but to venture into the world of self-employment to make ends meet."

Lewis added that, for many over-50s, however, starting their own business had been an empowering experience: “Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom; with many well-funded Boomers choosing to set up their own businesses for the love of doing so – whether consulting, a passion project, or to be the next success story on Dragons' Den. At a time in life when the kids have moved out and the mortgage is perhaps a little smaller, many are finding that they have the luxury of choice for the first time.”

Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, added that self-employment can offer a more balanced way of working for older employees. Older workers are the fastest-growing part of the workforce, and this is also true of those in self-employment. With a rising state pension age and more of us needing to work for longer to support our longer lives, self-employment can offer opportunities for flexible, fulfilling and rewarding work,” he said.

But self-employment among the over-50s isn't always the result of workers choosing this form of employment, he warned: “While many people choose self-employment as a way of offering more flexibility and choice, others might be turning to self-employment because of barriers in the job market like ageism or a lack of opportunities for progression."

Thomson added that older self-employed individuals risk missing out on workplace benefits such as pension schemes. “While self-employment can be a great option for many people in the later part of their working lives, particularly because of the flexibility it offers, self-employed people risk missing out on some of the key benefits of working for an employer such as employer pension contributions, support for a health condition or carer's leave,” he said.

“Official statistics show that 45% of self-employed people aged 35 to 54 have no private pension wealth. It is crucial then that people in this position plan and prepare for how their circumstances might change in later life.”

This research comes as the Women and Equalities Committee released a report calling on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to be braver in its approach to clamping down on workplace discrimination.

Women and Equalities Committee chair and MP Maria Miller said: "Employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account. We need a critical mass of cases to build a culture where compliance with the Equality Act is the norm. The EHRC must overcome its timidity. It has unique powers and limited resources, and must use them for maximum impact."

Thomson welcomed the report: "It’s absolutely right that we must clamp down on discrimination in the workplace. Ageism is often overlooked but is sadly all too common.Like all forms of discrimination, ageism limits people’s opportunities in society and at work. More people say they experience ageism than any other form of discrimination, but evidence shows it’s less likely to be taken seriously," he said.

“We must make tackling ageism a focus of a strengthened enforcement drive. No-one should face discrimination or lose out at work because of their age or anything else.”