Are boomers the answer to the great resignation?

Employers must recruit and retain more older workers to overcome a shortage of manpower and skills that could derail economic recovery


Boomers, the nation’s job market needs you.

Employers are grappling with unprecedented staff shortages across the UK, with a record 1.2 million vacancies. As the economy rebounds from Covid-19 shutdowns, businesses are struggling to rebuild their workforce to respond to a surge in demand.

Pubs and restaurants can’t hire the staff they need to put food and drink on customers’ tables. Housebuilders can’t recruit bricklayers and carpenters to provide the new homes needed by so many families.

The trend is similar in the public sector. The NHS and social care each have more than 100,000 unfilled vacancies, while the education sector needs to recruit thousands of teachers at every level.

Economic inactivity

The problem? An army of employees have left the labour market completely. The Institute for Employment Studies estimates there are still 600,000 fewer people in work than before the pandemic, and more than a million fewer than if employment had continued to grow at pre-Covid rates.

Significantly, more than half of this change is down to older workers leaving the employment market. Put simply, there are fewer older people in work. Economic inactivity among people aged over 50 has grown by 560,000 since the crisis began.

In the UK, like several other industrialised countries, the great resignation is grey, even as the official age of retirement is rising. With fewer migrant workers and more young people in education, it’s clear why the employment market is in crisis.

Addressing the skills shortage in the UK demands a multi-faceted strategic approach and will take several years to correct. Older people must be at the heart of this process. They often have the skills and experience that are in short supply across so many sectors and industries. They also have the age profile and insight that is likely to match both senior decision-makers and higher-spending customers, which can help to build relationships.

Enticing these skilled workers back into employment while retaining those who may be approaching retirement will be a huge challenge for business. The reality is that many over-50s see the world of work as a hostile environment and would rather suffer a fall in living standards than try to fit in when they do not feel welcome. An extreme example hit the headlines recently, when it was revealed that IBM referred to older workers as “dinobabies” and talked about removing them from the workplace to make way for younger people.

Business brain drain

Doctors, nurses, carpenters, electricians, drivers, caterers: many are quitting work and taking their skills with them. This ‘brain drain’ is bad for business and for the economy as a whole.

Why is it happening? By 2030 half of all adults in the UK will be over 50.  Even so, the workplace is still tilted towards younger people in areas like training, promotion opportunities, flexibility in time off for caring responsibilities and so on.

During the pandemic, older workers were more likely to be furloughed than younger colleagues, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Many employers don’t consider age when looking to improve diversity and inclusion in recruitment, while the type of language used in job advertisements can deter older workers from applying.

Many workplaces are reluctant to make reasonable adjustments for older workers as they might for other groups. For example, new technology is available that reduces the physical impact of some work, such as lifting heavier weights or bending and stretching to complete tasks. While allowance is generally made for childcare responsibilities, line managers are less accommodating when it comes to caring for an older partner or parent. Even social events at work tend to be organised around the interests of younger people.

Older workers fear and experience discriminatory attitudes and prejudicial behaviour in the labour market, says Dr Emily Andrews, deputy director of evidence at the Centre for Ageing Better thinktank. She notes that 36% of those aged 50-69 feel disadvantaged by their age when applying for jobs, while 17% report direct experience of age discrimination in the hiring process.

“This sense of hostility in the labour market is a key factor in discouraging older workers away from work,” Andrews says. “Encouraging employers to actively pursue this age group and to tackle age bias in their recruitment practices would help address this longstanding issue, which is now more urgently needed to tempt this cohort back to work.”

Challenge preconceptions

There are many steps employers can take to recruit and retain older workers. When it comes to hiring, don’t just rely on online platforms and digital application forms. There is nothing wrong with a standard, traditional job application form.

Don’t ask job applicants to state their date of birth and avoid questions like “where do you see yourself in five/10 years’ time?” It also helps to include older people on your recruiting panel to avoid any unconscious bias. Challenge any preconceptions, like assuming older people take more sick days (they don’t).

Employers must look at their data on the age range and structure of their workforce to understand how exposed different teams and business areas are to the retirement of colleagues. This will help organisations mitigate the potential loss of skills and experience.

Offer meaningful training to older workers to update their skills. Sometimes employers baulk at the cost of training for employees who might retire soon, but this can be a false economy, demotivating those who are excluded. Adopt mentoring schemes to encourage older workers to share skills and experience with younger colleagues; this also fosters team building.

During the pandemic, businesses became more agile in terms of working hours and workplace attendance, a trend that’s generally been positive for older workers. Maintaining these kinds of flexible working arrangements will be critical when it comes to recruiting and retaining older people.

Some companies are moving towards flexible retirement, where employees take their pensions but continue to work for the company. The employees have fulfilling lives with enhanced financial support, while their employer continues to benefit from their experience and commitment. Mid-career conversations with senior managers can help employees take steps to prepare for working in later life while also feeling valued by their employer.

Older workers are key

Understanding the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population is vital if we want to create productive, innovative and inclusive multi-generational teams as we all lead longer working lives. As the population ages, it makes sound business sense to have a workforce that broadly reflects the customer base.

Andy Briggs, chief executive of Phoenix Group, is the government’s business champion for older workers. He wants more employers to focus on attracting over-50s, who he says bring a wealth of experience, skills, and perspectives.

“Up to a million over-50s aren’t working when they genuinely want to do so,” says Briggs. “While some people have actively chosen not to work as they get older, many are forced into this position. This is an important issue that we all need to tackle, one that is exacerbated by labour market shortages and productivity challenges.”

Phoenix Group believes a diverse workforce in terms of age can benefit a company. With about half of consumer spending from the over-50s, it’s essential the company represents its customers and communities, he says.

“Older workers are a key part of the solution.”