Why we need to rethink what ‘old’ looks like

Our population is getting older. Between 2012 and 2022, the number of people aged between 50 and State Pension age will rise by almost four million, while the numbers aged 16 to 49 will fall – and amazingly, one in three babies born today is expected to live to 100. It is, of course, good news that most people can expect to live much longer.

And the even better news is that most of the increasing numbers of older people will be fitter and healthier for longer too. This means we need to update our concept of what ‘old’ means and alter the stereotypes, particularly of older people in the workplace.

Change is already beginning as employers are starting to realise what they stand to lose if their older staff leave. Some firms are finding ways to retain their more mature workers, making it easier for them to keep on working in later life. I would urge all employers to take this issue seriously. If they don’t, they risk losing a large chunk of their workforce – and valuable skills in coming years.

Enabling those who want to work longer has the power to make British businesses more competitive and increase our country’s economic activity significantly.

Many older people want to keep working. Not only can this benefit their income and general wellbeing, it could also provide a significant boost to their pensions, as well as to the economy.

Since 2011, the Government has outlawed forced retirement at age 65. This has allowed record numbers to stay in work – more than 1million over 65s are now choosing to keep working.

Looking to the future

Since my report earlier this year ‘A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit’, when I was the Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, progress has been made.

Numerous employers have written to tell me what they are doing to break the age barriers, including committing to mid-life career reviews for their workforce and providing advice to line-managers on how to support their female staff during the menopause. And there are many more areas that employers are exploring. For example, as they facilitate childcare needs for younger workers, they are considering how to support older employees who may have caring responsibilities.

In turn the Government is also increasing the support available to help older people return to work. Too many over 50s find it too difficult to re-join the labour market in later life, but desperately want to, so we have introduced ‘Older workers’ champions in Jobcentres around the country, as well as a number of pilots to support older people into work by helping them to build their confidence and skills.

Waking up to the benefits of older workers

One firm that has certainly recognised the benefits of older workers is Barclays. It has actively promoted an apprenticeship programme to encourage a range of people to apply – including the over 50s. You may have seen their adverts on TV this week.

The Head of Apprenticeships at Barclays, Mike Thompson, wants to recruit people of all ages and backgrounds. He finds the life experience and empathy that older workers bring, often helps when speaking to customers.

I absolutely agree with this. Having a diverse workforce – including an age diverse workforce – enables a business to reflect its customer base; to better understand and better serve its whole range of clients in an ageing population.

Angela is one of the Barclays scheme’s new recruits. She is 51 and has successfully secured an apprenticeship with the firm. Before joining, she cared for her father for a number of years, but was keen to re-join the workforce. She now has the opportunity to be supported in learning new skills and progressing with her career.

She feared employers would not be interested in her, but is really enjoying her new role and enjoys being part of, what she calls, the “hustle and bustle” of working life.

Still a long way to go

But of course some employers have yet to see the light. Overcoming ageism and other barriers to encourage fuller working lives remains a priority for me. I will continue to update you on our progress.

As we can look forward to living longer, we need to re-think what ‘old’ looks like and dispel any myths that over 50s or over 60s will all soon be ‘past it’ – most of them can benefit from learning new skills and taking on new challenges.

Nowadays, being over 50 does not necessarily mean you will soon stop work. Employers who harness the talent, dedication, loyalty and enthusiasm of the over 50s will reap significant benefits in future. Taking this issue seriously can help everyone – it is good for ourselves, our economy and our nation’s success.

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