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We’re wasting the talents of our over-50s

Everyone’s living standards will fall if the skilled middle-aged are consigned to the scrapheap.

Once out of a job, the over-50s are less likely than any other age group to find another job swiftly. Almost half of those unemployed have been job hunting for a year or more, compared with a third for all British adults. Two years ago Anglia Ruskin University demonstrated the prejudice they face. The university sent out pairs of CVs in response to 2,000 job vacancies. The fake candidates were equally skilled but one was 28 and one 50. The 28-year-old was four times more likely to get an interview.

Experiences like these have left many unemployed over-50s scarred and pessimistic. Only a quarter of those between 50 and state retirement consider themselves retired but well over half think it unlikely they will ever work again.

This is a crisis for the country, not just for individuals. In the next decade the working population will increase by 3 per cent but the number of over-65s will rise by 39 per cent. Half of all adults will be over 50 by 2030. Unless more people work for longer everyone’s living standards will fall as the ratio of dependants to workers shoots up. Brexit has given this problem added urgency since the flow of cheap skilled workers will dry up.

Everyone has understood this problem for a long time; the difficulty has been in getting employers to act. Now the government’s business champion for older workers, Aviva UK’s chief executive Andy Briggs, has galvanised eight well-known companies into making public commitments to change. The Co-op, Boots, Barclays, Aviva and others have pledged to increase the number of over-50s in their companies by 12 per cent in five years. The campaign wants every British company to join that pledge. If they did, more than a million extra 50- to 69-year-olds would be working by 2022, filling skills gaps, giving more people purpose and income, and increasing GDP by tens of billions of pounds.

The policy will demand the same sorts of adjustments that companies have made to keep mothers employed over the years. As people age many would like to work more flexibly, either because their stamina or health are waning, or because they need to care for partners or parents too. Employers will have to understand people’s frailties, rather than using them as an excuse to get rid of staff. The reward for all of us will be a more resilient, richer country, more respect for older people’s capabilities, and an end to the horror of being tossed onto a scrapheap when we are still in the full flow of a productive life.

Ageism is rampant in Britain, wrecking people’s later lives, creating an alarming gap for individuals between the end of paid work and the start of the state pension, making holes in the economy as people stop contributing to taxes and growth, and wasting an immense resource of skill, knowledge and goodwill.

From their early fifties onwards, people start disappearing from the workforce in large numbers: 80 per cent of 53-year-olds are employed, but less than half of the population still have jobs in the year before they qualify for a state pension. Most of those who stop working have no choice. Some 57 per cent of 50- to 59-year-olds who leave their jobs are forced out, much higher than in any other age group. The redundancy rate for 60- to 64-year-olds is twice as high as for those aged 16 to 49.

The insidious discrimination begins early. Many employers don’t bother to upgrade the skills of older staff. Two years ago Age UK reported that fewer than a fifth of over-50s had been given workplace training in the last month, but almost two fifths of 35- to 49-year-olds had.


may 25 2017, 12:01am, the times



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