A recent survey of older jobseekers and workers has found that they are strongly disillusioned by their near-term employment prospects, primarily due to the devastating effect of the Covid pandemic on the economy, in combination with their “age disadvantage”. This is compounded by the lack of support on offer to older workers – especially from government – to help them re-enter the workforce, such as training or mature internship schemes.
The ‘pulse’ survey of just under one thousand people aged 45 and over, was undertaken between 11th-15th January 2021 by No Desire To Retire, the portal for over-50s talent. It asked them about their current work and job expectations, and more specifically how they felt about the first six months of 2021, compared to the last six months (July to December) of 2020.
H2 2020 vs H1 2021: key findings
A huge 85% said they were feeling neutral or negative, of which 35% felt much more negative (30.1% of the total number of respondents, the biggest category).
The main reason given for this upsurge in pessimism was the impact of Covid on the jobs landscape – resulting in mass unemployment and the market being “flooded with applicants chasing a scarce number of vacancies” – and a general hiring freeze as a result of the uncertain economic outlook. More specifically, against this backdrop, a large majority highlighted that their age – already an issue pre-Covid – had been “greatly exaggerated” as a prevalent barrier to finding work in the face of ever-increasing competition from “younger and cheaper” jobseekers, “with 40 years to go before they retire, [rather] than someone who as only 2 years left”. A number commented that they had applied for lower level jobs but were still unsuccessful due to their age. As a result, around a third of those looking for work had decided to put their search on hold or had given up altogether.
Other reasons given included general health and mental health issues, precluding them from commuting and/ or going into an office environment. And acknowledging that the growth in remote working presented them with options, they felt they were overlooked or “automatically ruled out” for these roles due to stereotypes of older people being “IT illiterate” or “tech luddites”.
However there were some glimmers of optimism, with 1 in 6 older workers saying they feel comparatively more positive about the next six months, around two fifths of who felt much more positive (6% of total – notably doubling to around 11% among those who persisted with their job search) with the Covid vaccine given as the most common reason.
Regionally, the top three areas with the most negative outlook were the South West, London and Wales; while those with the most positive outlook were Yorkshire & The Humber, Scotland and the North West, broadly mirroring regional changes to rates of employment more generally.
What would help improve prospects?
When asked what would help older workers’ job prospects generally, the most popular suggestion was the provision of more formalised opportunities to reskill: over half of the respondents (53%) were keen to undertake training courses; and 4 in 10 favouring on-the-job learning by way of, for example, a paid mature internship or returnship, or “paid volunteer work to enable career changers to get experience in the new context”. But in this connection, a large majority pointed to a lack of government support versus the numerous training and apprenticeship programmes aimed at helping younger people onto the career ladder, calling for equivalent schemes for unemployed older workers and “priority [assistance] given to over 50’s equal to that for 16-24 year olds”.
Meanwhile, just under a third of those surveyed (30%) said they were interested in having a career coach and/or a undergoing a ‘Mid-Life Review’ – with many recognising the need to change roles or pivot into a new industry as a result of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, there were calls for employers to focus on age as a core part of their diversity and inclusion agenda, on a par with gender and ethnicity, with just over a third of respondents (35%) supporting the introduction of quotas for older workers. A minority also recommended strengthening age discrimination legislation.
However, the overriding consensus was that the key lay with getting employers to recognise and understand the contribution that older workers could make to their business – and crucially their bottom line. To this end they urged government and/ or influential business groups – “perhaps the DWP or BEIS”, “the Business Secretary”, “the likes of the CBI ” – to create communications campaigns promoting the “[commercial] benefits of older workers and advantages of a more age-diverse workforce”; ideally backed by incentives to encourage recruitment “such as NI/tax relief” and “PR and subsidies”.
Commenting on the findings, Natasha Oppenheim, CEO of No Desire To Retire said: “Our survey of older workers shows that they feel overwhelmingly pessimistic about their job prospects in the short term, with around one in three job seekers abandoning their search for a new role in the last six months. Sadly this echoes what we frequently hear from our members at present.
“This is unsurprising given the brutal economic fallout arising from coronavirus, which has disproportionately hit our oldest, as well as our youngest, workers. Over the last year there has been a rapid rise in unemployment among over 50s – up by about a third – in stark contrast to, and reversing the pre-pandemic trend, when they accounted for eighty percent of employment growth.
“But they are especially worried that their age will become an even greater competitive disadvantage when applying for roles in the medium to longer term, when the economy starts to pick up again. Our members often tell us about their experiences of ageist attitudes among both recruitment agencies and employers – for example, being told they are ‘past it’ or confronting prejudicial stereotypes at interview; in the words of one respondent: ‘most employers assume if you are over 50 you cannot use a computer, you are unhealthy and are outdated and unwilling to learn.’
“However as our survey shows, this is far from being the case. It highlights that older jobseekers are energetic and resourceful when it comes to building on their experience to meet the immediate needs of employers; indeed, many respondents said that they had used lockdown as an opportunity to cultivate new hobbies, complete ‘DIY’ training courses, or do voluntary work to expand their skills-set, improve their marketability, and so up their chances of landing a new role.
“Yet, in the same breath, while recognising the need to support younger people into the workplace – their children and grandchildren – whose job prospects had also been hard hit, they felt their needs were being ignored by government by comparison; many suggested an older worker version of the Kickstart scheme be set up to help them reskill and re-enter the workforce. To this end, we were heartened by the launch of the Restart programme November’s Spending Review – aimed at older workers in particular – but still await further details. While the current focus on young people is important, it must not be at the expense of the other end of age in the workforce: we know that if you become unemployed at over 50 you’re less likely than any other group to get another job.
“Meanwhile about a sixth of respondents actually felt more hopeful about the next six months; and similarly, we are encouraged by an upturn in employers looking to hire experienced talent and retool their workforce – via our sister company Experients – which looks set to continue as each industry adapts to their new normal.
“But, reiterating what our members said in this survey, the key to achieving any sustained improvement in prospects for over-50s workers lies with employers. In particular:
“(1) Ensuring their HR and Diversity & Inclusion policies address, and are effective in practically tackling, ageism in their workplace. Research shows is the most prevalent form of discrimination across the UK and Europe – and that twice as many people are highly ageist versus other forms of bias such as gender, race or sexuality.
“(2) More generally, by recognising the myriad benefits older workers bring to the multigenerational workforce – currently often five generations working together – to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts, not least a more profitable business. Research shows a strong correlation between having age-diverse teams and financial (out)performance, as a result of better decision-making, problem-solving and innovation while delivering up to an 87% improvement in productivity.
“The ageing talent pool should be embraced as an opportunity. The over 50s collectively represent a huge untapped asset of millions of years’ worth of accrued experience, expertise; and an abundance of skills and qualities needed to help business achieve some form of Covid-related economic recovery such as resilience, adaptability, time-critical problem-solving, and mentoring. Numerous studies also show older workers also consistently outperform on soft-skill metrics such as communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, and team working.
“It is time to realise the value of this asset for the UK economy – and in turn our society – to help us build back stronger.”
 See Notes to Editors for more information on demographic profile of respondents
 16% of total respondents; 6% of total felt much more positive (see above), equating to 40% of those feeling comparatively more positive
 Per percentage of respondents feeling that way: most negative: South West 64%; London 61%; Wales 60%; and most positive: Yorkshire & The Humber 27%; Scotland 19%; North West 17%.
 Per trends in employment/ unemployment levels in the ONS labour market statistics for Aug-Oct 2020 (published on 15.12.20)