A polylingual, well-connected non-executive director who spent his career running some of Europe’s biggest mail order clothing businesses is, at 93, the oldest person on the payroll of David Nieper, a family-owned fashion business based in the Derbyshire town of Alfreton.
His experience has been invaluable, according to Christopher Nieper, the company’s second-generation managing director. So has that of countless other older workers employed in the company’s factories, call centre and offices. Based in an area with a long history of textiles manufacturing, the business has historically hired skilled staff from competitors that closed, while struggling to attract younger recruits.
As a result, the company now sponsors a local school, and puts effort into retaining older employees, offering flexible hours, and an extra week of annual leave to those who work past state pension age. “We try hard to hang on to them,” Nieper says. “When somebody retires, I look at that and think, ‘Oh no’. We need two young people to replace one that leaves.”
This attitude is not unusual in manufacturing, where employers have been grappling for years with the challenges of an ageing workforce. But it is an alien mindset to many UK employers — who are alert to the need to forge better career paths for women and staff from minority groups, while often neglecting the needs of older employees and overlooking older candidates when recruiting.
A November poll by UK professional body the Chartered Management Institute found that just 4 in 10 managers were open to employing those aged between 50 and 64 to a “large or moderate” extent.
Some put it more bluntly. “Post-pandemic, one agency was honest enough to say they ‘would not touch someone over 60 with a barge pole’,” says John, a freelance software developer in his sixties who has stopped working after repeatedly running into similar attitudes.
This prejudice is backfiring badly. An exodus of older people from the workforce — just as UK employers lost access to the EU labour market — is a key factor in labour shortages that have been plaguing businesses in sectors ranging from logistics to hospitality, care and IT.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase of more than half a million in the number of working-age adults who are neither in a job nor looking for one. This rise in economic inactivity is almost unique to the UK and it has been driven largely by people who no longer want to work and can afford not to.
The government is trying to reverse this trend, expanding its offering of “mid-life MOTs” to help workers in their forties and fifties take stock of their finances, skills and health; and deploying a network of “50 plus champions” to persuade businesses of the advantages of hiring older workers. But the state’s ability to reach workers who have chosen to retire and are not seeking help is limited.
This places the onus on employers not just to become more open-minded about whom they hire, but to make jobs more appealing to older workers — whether by offering more flexible hours, more support for those with health conditions, career progression or simply by making workplaces more inclusive for those whose motivation to work is as much about social interaction as salary.
“Most people who are out of work have options. They aren’t on benefits. The biggest responsibility is on business,” says Jon Boyes, economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a membership group for HR professionals. He points to huge variation in the profile of workers employed in different sectors — in hospitality and IT, no more than one in five are older than 50, a proportion that rises to a third or more in health and care, logistics or real estate.
“It’s up to employers to revisit their attitudes,” says Anthony Painter, director of policy at the CMI. Growing numbers are doing just that — with age becoming a new focus, rather than an overlooked corner, of the diversity and inclusion agenda.
Some — including the retailer Halfords and fast-food chain McDonald’s — have launched recruitment drives targeting over-50s for roles as technicians or in customer service. But other employers, in white collar sectors in particular, see it as even more important to retain existing employees.
“What’s driving them is skills shortages and demographics,” says Kim Chaplain, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, a think-tank.
The single most important change employers can make to tempt the over-50s to return or remain is to be more flexible about working hours, says Chaplain, since many are juggling work with caring for parents, looking after grandchildren, or managing health conditions of their own.
“I work every day with a two-hour lunch break to rest. I can’t keep going that long, so I work till 5:30 and start at 11. Two-and-a-half hours is the maximum I can cope with,” says Susan Keighley, a 65-year-old who is now working in client support at Juno, an online conveyancing firm, which is run by her son-in-law.
She struggled for years to find work after quitting a high pressure overseas post to look after her dying father — then losing out to younger candidates for a string of jobs, taking intermittent consulting work and undergoing treatment for cancer that has had lasting effects.
Although Keighley earns far less than in the past, and is working below her skill level, she would be afraid to leave an employer that genuinely supported wellbeing, she says, not only through flexible hours and time off, but also by monitoring workloads and giving staff in stressful frontline roles a mix of tasks. “This feels like a safe place to be,” she adds.
Prompted by the pandemic, many employers are putting more thought into support for employees with health conditions — including those with mental health issues, and women going through menopause, who can otherwise fall out of work just as their careers are peaking.
But employers may need to rethink how they package work and deploy people so they can provide the kind of flexibility older workers want.
Antony Perillo, industrial director at luxury bootmakers John Lobb, says older employees in the company’s Northampton factory tend to train others in crafts such as hand stitching, leather cutting and fitting, or work on bespoke orders that are less time-pressured than production for the ready-to-wear business. These multigenerational teams help to create a “stable, calm environment”, he adds.
White collar employers are also seeking to blur the boundaries between full-time work and retirement — for example, by allowing employees to reduce their hours and start drawing on pension pots in a graduated way or by using former employees in consulting roles after they have retired.
Emma Harvey, HR chief operating officer at insurer Axa UK, is drawing on the group’s experience in France and Germany, where managers had to tackle the challenge of an ageing workforce earlier than in Britain.
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It is now “massively important” for the group to build a more sustainable workforce in the UK, given the “perfect storm” it is facing in recruitment, she says. One possibility is to adopt an approach pioneered by the German business, where colleagues can call on the services of six or seven senior leaders who have retired from Axa to work as consultants on particular projects — known informally as “the bench”.
All too often, older workers are overlooked for training and promotion by line managers who assume they are no longer looking to take on new responsibilities — and a change in corporate policy will make little difference to this, unless matched by a broader shift in corporate culture.
Nick Smith, talent and development manager at Aggregate Industries, where 40 per cent of staff are aged over 50, says “subtle changes” have been crucial to set the tone at the building materials supplier. The company makes sure that the images used in its marketing are “not all just young, pretty people”, and that the language used to advertise training “doesn’t just look like it’s for young upstarts”, Smith told a workshop organised by the website Workingwise.
“Everything hinges on the capability of the line manager,” says Chaplain of Ageing Better, underlining the gap between corporate ambitions and on-the-ground practice. But with skills shortages likely to persist, the incentives for companies to act are strong, she adds. “The things you change to make life better for this group make life better for everyone . . . Work doesn’t suit their needs and work needs to change.”