The recent call by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt for the over-50s who have left the UK labour market to return to work raises several questions – and provides potential opportunities – for employers looking to fill their staffing shortages.
The Government has said it is looking to better support people with long-term illnesses that might prevent their return to work. But are health issues the main barrier?
CMI’s research shows that employers are significantly less open to hiring older workers than bringing in younger talent. Less than half of managers (42%) would be open to hiring people aged between 50 and 64 to a large extent. Only three out of 10 managers (30%) would be open to a large extent to hiring those age 65 or older. And one in five managers said their organisation was not open to the idea of hiring those over 65 at all. This reluctance to take on older workers runs across large and smaller employers.
Political will for an inclusive workforce that includes the over-50s is very welcome, however, the mismatch between a government telling us to work longer – and raising the state pension age to 68 – and a majority of managers being reluctant to hiring older workers, highlights the need for the approach of employers to change, quickly.
Indeed barriers keeping older workers from returning to work bump right up against the other well-publicised challenges sitting in the Government’s in-tray – not least being access to social care for elderly parents and the cost of childcare for young families who are turning to grandparents to step in and help. And, of course, the NHS waiting lists for those who have stopped working because of health issues that can be addressed in a fairly straight-forward manner, such as the wait for knee replacement surgery.
What can employers do to help address the issue?
The first step organisations need to take is to make this issue an organisation-wide focus. Companies need to question whether or not their approach to inclusivity includes older workers and, in order to do so, they need to consider whether or not their managers have the skills they need to navigate the changing demographics of the workforce. This responsibility should not lie solely with HR departments but needs to be embedded across the organisation and be part of a cultural shift in how older workers are viewed by their peers. Identifying and addressing this particular skills gap within management ranks will be a vital first step.
Many employers will need to revisit their offer, including health benefits, unpaid leave and increased flexibility. Importantly, improvements to benefits need to target not just potential new employees, but perhaps more importantly, existing staff members who are getting older. Ensuring you have the tools in place to retain the people who are already trained and loyal to your organisation will be vital if firms are to tackle labour shortages.
For inspiration, employers can look to companies such as Boeing, Bank of America, Walgreens and General Motors, all of which invite older workers to come back through specific programmes tailored to ageing. They are branded “returnships”.
A study by Deloitte found that age-diverse teams feel more psychologically safe and innovative than teams which are age-biased. Age brings a sense of security and wisdom to teams, so use it to your advantage.
Making sure that learning and development programmes are tailored for older people and that equality of opportunity reaches all ages in the workforce is crucial here. This includes apprenticeships – inclusive employers will debunk the myth that apprenticeships are only for the young. The apprenticeship system is intended, by design, to help organisations to fill the skills gaps they are experiencing, while giving people at every age and stage of their working lives the chance to gain skills. Older workers should not be the exception to this rule.
Similarly, the ability to work flexibly will allow older workers to navigate some of the stresses that have the potential to force them out of the workforce or make a return to work too complex. This includes caring for ageing parents, ill partners or minor health worries of their own. Measures such as consistent work rotas, assessing the need for any assistive devices, being able to work from home or adjust hours to accommodate medical appointments all add up to a more welcoming workplace – for employees of all ages.
Finally, one of the best ways to understand the needs of older workers is to learn from them while they are still working. Real GDP per capita in 2050 could be 20% higher according to OECD estimates if we’re able to build multigenerational workforces and give older employees greater opportunities to work. Viewing older workers as a resource, rather than a problem to be fixed, will be an encouraging first step that will deliver results across our economy.
Anthony Painter is director of policy at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI)