Why are the 50+ generation retiring – is this the reason?

5 December 2022 By Victoria Tomlinson

Why are the 50+ generation retiring – is this the reason? image

N.B. Since publishing this blog the letter to the FT has been published https://bit.ly/3h6Zcew

The government, policy leaders and the chair of John Lewis are all worried about the missing millions of the 50+ generation who have left work and don’t intend to return. All sorts of theories are being put forward – some feel right and others completely missing the mark.

I feel someone has to be the voice of this generation which is being badly misunderstood. Two articles in the FT and Telegraph cover many of the issues – both well written and argued – but I was quite angry about the Telegraph calling them ‘workshy’. 

Why are the 50+ generation retiring?

So let’s look at the articles, the stats and then what I think is happening. I wrote a letter to the editor for both these and failed to get in, so rather than waste a morning’s work, I am sharing them here!

Camilla Cavendish in the FT wrote The Great Unretirement is Coming – and I do agree with this – while Ben Wright’s article in the Telegraph was Workshy and Resigning: How Early Retirement is killing Britain’s Productivity.

Camilla set the scene in her article, saying “Fifty-five per cent of the increase in “missing” workers has come from those aged 50 to 64. Many are retiring early not because they are too sick to work but because they are sick of working. New polling finds this group expresses a greater dislike of their jobs than their German and US counterparts, and are more likely to say the pandemic has made them rethink. Moreover, they believe they can afford it. In the UK, 18 per cent of economically inactive 50- to 64-year-olds report having become better off as a result of the pandemic, compared with 8 per cent in the US and 4 per cent in Germany.”

The UK has a skills shortage which is why everyone is panicking about the 50 plussers packing their bags and leaving work for good.

The Office for National Statistics carried out detailed research with 19k people to understand more of what was going on. This is a table which sums up much of the issue.

My published letter to the FT

My response to Camilla’s article was this letter – published on 6 December 2022

Dear Sir

In all the analysis as to why hordes of 50 to 64-year olds are leaving the workforce (Camilla Cavendish, The Great Unretirement era is coming for Britain, 26 November), no-one is talking about how the 50+ generation feels they are treated at work.

In recent online discussions, one said, “I felt undervalued …we have had enough of being treated as if we have irrelevant skills and knowledge”. Another, “As a retired 60+ I’d be more than happy to return to the workplace, provided there was flexibility in hours worked.” And yet another, “Ageism is alive and well in the workforce…they’re not going back because they don’t respect the management (because the management doesn’t respect them)”.

HR teams of global corporates recognise training, benefits and flexible hours have focused too much on younger generations. One admitted, “All we have for the older generation is impotency and menopause support.”

Camilla is right – this generation wants purpose. And in a year or two, some may return to work, probably part-time.

But if we want to stop the rate of outward flow and attract others back, then we need to rethink ‘work’ for this generation, which largely suffers in silence. They want to be valued and respected; have ageism addressed; flexible working hours; and investment in their skills.  The benefit that employers could offer is to help them plan the next stage of their lives and go part-time while they test out new ideas.

Our evidence is that this generation is desperately keen to use their skills. They are not work-shy as some commentators suggest. But they struggle with how they do this. Of all the post-pandemic problems facing this country, surely this is one of the easiest for employers to solve?

My (unpublished!) letter to the Telegraph

And this was my response to the Telegraph article by Ben Wright.

Dear Sir

In speculating why the 50+ generation are retiring early, Dr Cribb draws the wrong conclusions and is in danger of making the problem worse (Workshy and resigning: why early retirement is killing Britain’s productivity, 5 November).

We are working with this generation. People are retiring early not because they are workshy but because they are not valued at work and have had enough.

In the summer, Dame Sharon White of John Lewis commented on the same issues, saying the government needed to think “about how to encourage more [50+] people back into work”. I posted on LinkedIn that it was not for government to solve, but employers – and the need to value this generation at work. There was a stream of comments from those who said they had retired early because they felt undervalued and saw old-fashioned working practices and ageism.  NOT because they were workshy.

As Covid hit, the government called for the retired generation to help – and they did, in droves.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists and business people. They were not workshy; they helped the country in its hour of need, receiving little recognition or thanks.

When talking to CPOs of global brands on this topic, they admit they have not invested in this generation’s skills; they don’t analyse employee engagement by age and benefits are skewed towards young employee needs (childcare and fertility with only ‘impotency and menopause support’ for older employees).

The Bobs and Alices may be happy to ‘retire’ and do little, but give it a year and they are likely to wake up and say, “Is this it? Is this my life for the next 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years?”  I have seen first-hand that when they try and help charities or businesses, or find another job all they meet is silence or rejection.

Employers have the answer to much of the skills shortage in their hands.  It is not just pesky millennials who want purpose and flexibility in their work. The 50+ generation does not necessarily want 24/7 work lifestyles, but they still want to be useful and use their skills. It will take just a little imagination and a lot of caring to bring them back.

(This was the blog I posted about Dame Sharon White earlier this year and mentioned above – you can see the heart-breaking comments from people saying why they left work)

So there you have it.  What’s the verdict? Do you think the 50+ generation are leaving because they are workshy or just fed up with how they are treated?

How can employers retain the 50+ generation?

What do employers need to do to stem the flood of resignations?  To sum up, the key points are

  • Diversity policies must include age – it’s the last discrimination that isn’t being tackled
  • That means data needs analysing by age – wait for a shock when you see the evidence of just how disillusioned the 50+ generation are and I suspect, the levels of mental health problems
  • Rethink jobs and work for this generation.  I keep hearing that people have had enough of ‘planes and trains’, endless meetings and the stress/responsibility of 24/7 work. What they would like is work in projects and flexible working.  They have so much experience to offer and tend to be good at communications and people/partnerships (not having grown up on mobile phones).  It just takes a bit of imagination and involving THEM in your re-design
  • The dreaded ‘impotency and menopause support’ is just awful – yes, it is needed, but just having this makes them seen old and written off by younger employees. There are all sorts of benefits they would love, not least help with planning for ‘life after’ when they eventually retire
  • Invest in their skills. Every employer I have spoken to over the last year admits this generation doesn’t get training.  It’s no good employers complaining they aren’t good with tech – whose fault is that?  This generation is perfectly capable of getting techie if they see the reason why.  You will see a return on your investment in spades
  • Understand, recognise and use their skills.  75% of the 50+ generation say their skills are neither recognised nor used. Seventy five per cent.  Isn’t that shocking? There are so many ways to use them. Get them mentoring younger generations; involved in community activities; pick up your ESG targets and help deliver them

Let’s not waste this generation’s talent.  They can help fill some of the skills shortages; increase productivity (that 75% must be contributing to poor productivity figures?) and prevent long term health and social care problems.  The longer people are actively involved in society, the less of a drain they will be later.

The 50+ generation is an opportunity.  Let’s use them.

Author Image

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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