How to harness the benefits of older workers

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Mary Bright

October 21, 2021

3 mins read

The number of older people in the UK workforce is increasing. This trend has implications for practically all businesses and for society as a whole. It also presents an opportunity.

Two factors are driving this trend: the rising number of people aged 50-plus in the population, and rising retirement ages.

Yet this age group has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. Since March 2020 there are 175,000 more 50–64 year olds out of work, bringing the total to 340,000, according to the Centre for Ageing Better .

At the same time, only 54% of businesses said they can recruit the skilled individuals they need, found City & Guilds Group’s recent Skills Index report . The same businesses were asked, over the next 12 months, if they faced a skills gap, how might they seek to address it, if at all? Only 14% said they would recruit or retain older workers or retirees.

This needs to change. A robust and sustainable business will want a workforce that better reflects its customer-base, and contains a diversity of experiences and perspectives. Older workers are a key part of this diversity.

Almost a third of the UK workforce is aged over 50. If that isn’t the case in your company, it’s worth exploring the reasons why.

If 60% of your workforce is aged over 50, that’s a problem. But it’s equally a problem if only 5% of employees are aged over 50. Age diversity brings benefits and reduces employment resource risks.

Recruit, retain and retrain

So how can employers achieve an age-diverse workforce? Usually this involves three “R”s: recruit, retain and retrain.

Companies could benefit from changing their talent recruitment strategies to ensure they attract prospective employees aged over 50. Otherwise, they’ll be fishing in an ever smaller pool of talent.

This means recruiting with appropriate language and imagery, and the right employment practices and policies.

Many jobsites/job adverts will be beautifully diverse when it comes to depicting some forms of diversity – such as gender or ethnicity – but they often won’t feature a single older person. This needs to change.

Employers should also examine the language they use in job adverts. The words “dynamic”, “energetic” and “creative” are often code for “young”. Their usage usually belies a conscious or unconscious bias in the recruitment process, and in the person who wrote the advert.

Training is another area to review. People aged 55-plus are the least likely to have undertaken formal workplace training in the last five years, with only 53% having done so, found research by City & Guilds Group , a leader in skills development and apprenticeship schemes.

This is fairly simple to address. If you know a certain proportion (let’s say 30%) of your workforce is over 50, then look at what proportion of your employees receiving training is over 50. Is the proportion – 30% in this case – roughly the same? If not, then bias is likely at work – either conscious or unconscious.

Future planning

Employers shouldn’t assume that someone over 50 doesn’t want to progress in their job.

In previous research I’ve worked on, we looked at our annual employee survey and one of the questions was, “Have you had a meaningful conversation with your manager about the future of your work?” People over the age of 50 were consistently less likely to have had this conversation. That means we just didn’t know.

Another misconception is that older workers might find it harder to adapt. I look back on when even I started to work and electric typewriters were introduced, followed by fax machines, and now we’re all quite adept with smart technology, and here many of us now are, on video calls every day. I would argue that older workers have shown great adaptability.

So do organisations need to develop different skills to manage a multigenerational workforce?

Yes and no. In general, most employees broadly want the same things, which are fairness, job satisfaction and the flexibility to balance work and life. This is potentially truer of older people, who may be managing more things such as care responsibilities – for children or parents – or an acquired disability.

For an employer to enable work-life flexibility, from day-one they should try to provide flexible working and also carers’ leave, and ensure this is well promoted internally. Employers should also make it clear that people are welcome regardless of age, and that training and other opportunities will be equally available to employees.

Culture change

The most challenging piece to address is ageism itself. This goes to the heart of an organisation’s culture and its leadership.

A part of getting this right is appreciating the benefits that older workers can bring. For example, if someone is balancing care responsibilities with work, then they’re already showing balancing skills, resilience and empathy.

At Standard Life, we talk to people every day who experience the loss of a loved one, or are making big decisions about how they will fund the rest of their lives. We have found that employees who have gone through similar experiences themselves are really good to have in the team. Customers feel there is somebody on the other end of the conversation who really understands what they’re going through.

If we don’t keep on investing in our workforce throughout their lives, recognising their value right through to retirement, older workers may not to be able to contribute effectively to their employers and the economy in years to come. If this happens, we will all lose out.


The information here is based on our understanding in November 2021 and shouldn’t be regarded as financial advice.

 Standard Life accepts no responsibility for information contained on external websites. This is for general information only.

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