How much of over-50s unemployment is down to the ageist attitudes of employers and recruitment agencies?

As has been made clear by the latest research about the number of over 50s now economically inactive, and recent comments by Ministers (including Jeremy Hunt) asking “early retired” people “to get back from the golf course”, the UK has a substantial problem with the rising number of workless over 50s at a time when the nation is suffering a severe skills shortage.

There are now 3.6 million 50-64 year olds not in work… a figure that is 300,000 higher than before the pandemic. But how much of this problem is about older people retiring early (through choice or ill health) and how much can be laid at the feet of employers? At least 500,000 want and need to work but cannot find a job.

The problem, contends Chris Walsh, Chief Executive of Wise Age the specialist London-based age and employment charity, is currently only being addressed from the supply side, when the demand side also needs to be urgently attended to.

“Yes, there needs to be more targeted and appropriate support to over-50s looking for work and we need to encourage more seniors to apply for employment or set up their own business. But the elephant in the room is widespread ageism among employers from all sectors – including the recruitment industry.”

Wise Age, and its predecessor Wise Owls, have been finding solutions on both sides of the coin for over 20 years: helping, supporting and training over 10,000 over 50s in that time to find work, as well as promoting the benefits to over 1,000 employers of recruiting 50+ workers as part of an age diverse workforce. Their activities include a Trust providing free telephone and on-line support programme helping over 50s find suitable employment as well as promoting the benefits of becoming an age friendly employer.

Chris continues: “Our practical experience and research has shown that, particularly in London, there are vacancies within the corporate and small business world, as well as within charities and the public sector that could be filled by experienced and motivated older people… if they were given the chance.

“But the greatest problem and barrier they face is the entrenched prejudice ­– not only from employers but from the recruitment industry itself, which is mainly staffed by younger people. Our clients frequently report that they have become demoralised after submitting over a hundred applications for which they are both qualified and experienced and yet get no positive responses. Even after registering with major employment agencies they are shown very little interest or support.

“However, the positive news from our experience is that when employers do appoint an older person, the feedback is largely positive, once they see the benefits that older people bring to a company: not least experience, skills, wisdom, the ability to mentor and support younger and newer colleagues as well as providing the rising number of older ‘silver consumers’ with the generational empathy and knowledge they want. 

“The business benefits are clear: when companies have an age diverse workforce they improve their profitability, productivity and staff morale and companies such as such as Phoenix, Boots, Aviva and John Lewis are beginning to realise the benefits older workers and age diversity brings.

“In the face of labour shortages in many sectors in London – in retail, hospitality, distribution and the health and social care sectors – employers are beginning to look elsewhere for suitable staff to meet the shortfalls they are experiencing.

“With a properly co-ordinated and resourced approach, combining more local specialist resources to support older people back into work and a high-profile promotional campaign to employers from all sectors showing the value that older people bring to an organisation, together we can both solve the problem of worklessness among older people and help employers get the staff they need.”

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