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Published 15 November 2023
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Over 50 is not Over the Hill, so Why is it so Hard to Find Work?

More people than ever aged 50 and older are working part-time, but ageism, health issues, caring responsibilities at home and a lack of workplace flexibility may be holding them back from the full-time roles they want.

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Finding a job in a tight labour market may feel daunting. And if you’re aged 50 or older, it can be especially difficult when faced with age bias or health issues.

Latest figures reveal that a record high number of people aged over 50 are working part-time only, according to an analysis of Office of National Statistics (ONS) data by Rest Less, an online community for the over-50s. These figures reveal that there were 3.6 million people aged 50 and older working part-time between April and June 2023 – 12% higher than the comparable period in 2021 and 56% higher than in 2003. 

Additionally, 18% more state-pension-eligible workers (aged 66 and older) are working part-time in 2023 compared to 2021, the analysis found. 

So what is driving the trend? Expert opinion and ONS data point to a variety of reasons, including health issues, the desire for better work-life balance, caregiving responsibilities at home and a dearth of suitable full-time work.

“The 50-plus age group really values flexible working. It’s the main factor they need to keep working for longer,” says Christopher Brooks, head of policy at Age UK, a charity offering support and advice to older people. Brooks notes that more families are having to care for ageing relatives rather than pay care home fees. And, more often than not, this responsibility overwhelmingly falls on women.

“We know from our own research that even doing as little as five hours of care a week has a significant impact on someone’s ability to stay and work,” he says.

Rampant ageism holds back over-50s

While flexibility certainly plays a role, the surge in part-time work among the over-50s age group isn’t necessarily only due to a lack of people who want to work more hours.

It’s also because of a lack of full-time roles with decent pay coupled with employers clinging to persistent stereotypes of older workers, says Chris Walsh, executive director of Wise Age, an employment support charity for older workers in the UK.

“The biggest problem, from our perspective, is institutional ageism. It’s rife across the UK in all sectors, including government. In particular, the recruitment industry is terribly ageist,” he says.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits employers from treating older workers unfavourably in the workplace due to their age. This applies to recruitment, work terms and conditions, promotions and transfers, training and dismissals.

However, age discrimination is still pervasive among employers, says Walsh. He also notes that many of the people the charity helps who aren’t receiving government benefits want to work and are “desperate” to do so, but they get overlooked.

As mentioned earlier, the ONS data also revealed that the increase in part-time workers applies to those aged 66 and above too. A total of 18% more state-pension-eligible workers (aged 66 and older) are working part-time in 2023 compared to 2021, the analysis by Rest Less found.

Denise, 66, is a professional carer from Dorset. She shared her insights about facing ageism in her career with the Centre for Ageing Better for a case study on ageism. She recalled how potential employers would either pass her over as “overqualified” or question her ability to do physically demanding work due to her age.

“I have been a widow for 30 years, so I always need to work,” Denise told the charity. “But at my age, getting a job is not easy. You’d think it might be different in care, with such a shortage of experienced carers. My age was a big obstacle.”

Financial impact of ageism in the workplace

Ultimately, ageism in employment can have a long-lasting, devastating financial impact on older workers.

“The longer older people are unemployed, the more likely they are to be in poverty,” Walsh says. “Inflation this last year has badly affected the poor more than anyone else.”

In 2023, there are an estimated 3.5 million people aged 50 to 64 years who are “economically inactive”, according to ONS statistics on trends in the over-50s’ labour market. This means people who are unemployed and have not been seeking work in the last four weeks.

Of that group, 42.3% said illness or disability is the main reason they are not seeking work, which is up by 3.2 percentage points compared to a year ago. And nearly a third said they decided to retire.

The benefits of an age-diverse workforce 

Businesses that hire older workers can create more opportunities for mutual learning within their teams. That, in turn, helps everyone learn and grow, Walsh points out.

“The addition of older people in a predominantly younger workforce will lead to greater staff satisfaction and the reduction in staff turnover,” he says.

Brooks adds that older workers have a lifetime of experience that can benefit younger workers.

“A lot of older workers love mentoring and have a lot of experience and skills, and like to pass that knowledge on,” he says. “All the evidence shows that’s the most productive and best way to organise your workforce.”

While employers might worry about the overheads of hiring more seasoned older workers, ignoring this age group might actually come at a steeper cost of customer retention, notes Brooks.

“Businesses need to think about who they’re selling to; the consumer market’s population is ageing,” he says, pointing out that one-third of the country’s workforce is over 50. “One of the best innovations for businesses is when they stop to think about what older customers want and who they want to work with.”

6 tips for older workers to land a job

For many older workers, finding a stable, well-paid role can be challenging – but it’s not impossible. Here are a few quick tips to help:

  1. Look at recruitment sites that feature age-friendly and age-diverse employers; don’t just go down the line applying for every job you see, Walsh recommends.
  2. Focus only on adverts where you know you can tick every single box that they’re asking for, he adds. Otherwise, you will waste time applying for roles that are not a good fit for you.
  3. Be able to show that you’re open to learning and take online courses or watch YouTube videos to learn new skills, suggests Brooks.
  4. Think about how to apply transferable skills from previous roles or industries to a new job and articulate how you would do that, he adds.
  5. Highlight soft skills, such as good communication, being a team player and a problem-solver, in your CV and in interviews, adds Walsh.
  6. Remove any roles [from your CV] that are more than 20 years old, advises Walsh. “That’s a big giveaway [of your age],” he points out.

Image source: Getty Images

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