The government is on a targeted drive to get the over 50s back to work to boost productivity and the economy. It makes a lot of sense, argues Steve Butler.

The latest data shows the number of 50-64s who are economically inactive currently sits at 3.6 million, 300,000 higher than pre-pandemic.

This is at a time when many firms are struggling to fill vacancies. Recent research from fintech provider Nucleus Commercial Finance (NCF) found that half of SMEs (47%) are concerned about attracting and retaining talent in the next 12 months. This is even higher for firms with up to 250 employees, with 68 percent concerned about staffing in 2023.

The over 50s are a vital resource to plug the skills gap, however, one barrier preventing older people going back to work is ageism.

Tackling age unconscious bias

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recently surveyed over 1,000 managers working in UK businesses and public services and found just four out of 10 (42%) were open “to a large extent” to hiring people aged between 50 and 64.

Many businesses still prefer to hire younger workers and are often guilty of age-unconscious bias, even if they aren’t aware of it across the organisation.

Older people are more likely to be discriminated against, stereotyped as being techno-phobic, lacking in ambition or resistant to further training or learning.

This is a major challenge for organisations to overcome – we exist in a society where ageism is everywhere – in the language people use, in newspapers and on TV and in the way older people are treated in society.

What are the issues?

One problem is because of its intersection with other aspects of diversity and inclusion age is often not considered a standalone issue. However, failing to recognise it can mean firms end up losing older workers or struggle to recruit talented over 50s.

Getting older workers back to work needs a conscious effort by both government and employers to tackle ageism, and it’s more urgent than most may think due to changing demographics.

By 2025, there will be one million more people fifty and over and 300,000 fewer people 30 and under in the workplace. One in three workers will be 50 or over. Increasingly the over 50s will be a valuable part of a multi-generational workforce; bringing enormous benefits companies can’t afford to lose.

They have skills, experience, and knowledge younger employees can learn from, plus with staff shortages in many sectors, it makes financial sense to focus on retaining talent. Research suggests that multi-generational workforces are more innovative and productive too, so it’s vital that firms work out how to get the best out of different age groups.

In fact, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the end of 2020 reported that investing in multi-generational workforces will raise GDP per capita by almost 19 percent in three decades.

It highlighted that employing multi-generational workforces can create a significant competitive advantage, generating a stronger pipeline of talent, improving workforce continuity and stability, and assisting the retention of knowledge.

How can employers best support older workers?

Offering flexible, hybrid or even part-time working is one incentive that could encourage people to stay in work and others to consider returning. Often over 50s have caring responsibilities, either for their children or for older relatives so this could give them flexibility to fit these duties around a job.

Employers also need to consider their recruitment processes too – are they inclusive enough? This means ensuring adverts don’t discriminate and appeal just to younger workers.

Furthermore, at interview stage if the panel is a group of young individuals talking about a modern workplace older people may be put off from accepting the job. Including older workers on the panel can help people feel like it’s somewhere they could see themselves working.

Training is also important. Too often budgets are skewed towards the younger generations, but older people want to learn and progress so it’s a key area to look at. Offering training and development that can help older workers learn new skills could keep them in the workforce longer and reduce the need and expense of recruitment.

Employers also need to identify the aspirations of people in their mid and later stages of their career to understand what makes them tick and what support they may need for the next 10 to 20 years of their career. This can be done by conducting midlife career reviews to stimulate conversations about next steps, second careers and flexible career solutions.

These are great tools for enabling employers and employees to both produce a plan to enable someone to stay in work for longer and ensure those years are fulfilling.  

By supporting people at all stages of their career, employers can make the most out of their multi-generational workforce and benefit from the different perspectives, skills and experiences of each generation. As the government has highlighted, older workers are an important part of the mix for a productive workplace but, to retain their talent, employers need to embrace and development their talents and ensure they tackle any signs of ageism.


Steve Butler is CEO of Punter Southall Aspire.





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.