The Retirees Heading Back to Work
In need of additional income and wanting to socialise, older people are looking for jobs again — and employers are happy to offer them flexibility
Neil retired in September. Age 70 and from Norfolk, he was deputy manager of a motor factor business, supplying car parts and accessories to garages. After working since he was 17, and deferring retirement for six years, he had decided it was finally time.
But barely a month had passed before Neil (who does not wish to share his last name) realised the sums did not add up. The state pension would not cover the cost of rent, energy bills, groceries and other outgoings. Before long, he was back looking for a job.
Alongside his money worries, he also missed being around people. “There are serious financial concerns of course, but I mostly miss the social aspect of work. I used to work for a happy team of people with a lot of banter,” he says. Now he’s looking for a part-time job in sales, something he says he is really good at. “Exceptional customer service” is what he has always been about.
With the move towards electric cars, he does not see much of a future in his old profession. Instead, as a collector of clocks, he might like to sell antiques a few days a week or work in a bookshop.
“It’s very much an outdated view that people will retire and sit at home and do nothing,” he added.
Many people over 65, like Neil, are hoping to become part of the so-called “unretired”. The cost of living crisis, opportunities for more flexible work and a post-lockdown realisation of the importance of social contact have all coincided, pushing many to look again for work and secure employment.
Recent analysis shows that workers aged 50-64 have been leaving the UK workforce because they are choosing to retire early. But according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people over 65 in work or looking for work hit close to 1.5mn over the summer — their highest level on record — before falling slightly of late. The total number for those over 50 is now close to 10.5mn in line with pre-pandemic levels. Many more over-65s are re-entering the workforce and a growing number — anecdotally — are looking for new opportunities.
Stuart Lewis, chief executive at Rest Less, a digital community and advocacy group for older people, says the official labour market data appears to be showing signs of a return to a long-term trend of more economically active older people.
“What we have seen in very recent months, among those over the age of 65 particularly, is that they are going back to work. We believe this is the start of the great ‘unretirement’ trend. Anecdotally, there are lots of people considering coming back,” Lewis says.
Pandemic lockdowns forced so many — particularly the older demographic — to re-evaluate their priorities. They overhauled their working lives by giving up on long hours, arduous commutes and jobs they did not particularly enjoy. They also took on caring responsibilities and sought to better manage their own ill health.
But the state pension, £9,627 a year at present, is getting eaten up by higher costs of goods and services as inflation mounts. With higher energy bills and the rising cost of basic groceries — from vegetable oil and pasta to milk and bread — many older workers are now reversing their retirement plans.
Some employers have spotted an opportunity amid a skills and labour shortage in the UK, amplified by restrictions on overseas workers. By targeting older people they can bring on workers for shorter shifts or odd days that are not popular among younger workers, who often opt for the most lucrative hours. Research also shows a multigenerational workforce is more creative and can be better for everyone, with older people often having invaluable institutional knowledge and passing on life experiences to younger colleagues.
Fuller’s, the pub and hotel chain, has recently launched its first recruitment campaign targeted at older workers.
“We can offer ultimate flexibility: if a person is an early bird or night owl, or only wants to work on a Friday or not on a Tuesday when they look after grandchildren, we can cater to that,” says Dawn Browne, people and talent director at Fuller’s. In turn, the company hopes to secure staff for shorter, less popular shifts that do not pay as well as a full day. While offering similar perks for all employees, Browne says they appeal even more to an older demographic, with staff discounts, help with healthcare costs and a 24/7 GP service. “This is especially valuable.”
This is backed up by the ONS’s Over 50s Lifestyle Study. It showed that among the 58 per cent of those between 50 and 65 who left their job during the pandemic and would consider returning to work, flexible hours are a priority.
For Jaci Quennell, a 65-year-old freelance social worker and psychotherapist, flexibility is key. The ability to work from home and conduct online consultations and meetings has enabled her to work for longer. Having cut back the number of days she worked in recent years after unsuccessful spinal surgery — an effective slowing down of her working life — she has now reversed course. She will soon take on a more senior role, setting up small children’s homes in conjunction with local authorities.
“I’m going to be managing over 100 staff,” says Quennell. “This demographic can be incredibly productive if given the opportunity and the flexibility. By doing half my meetings remotely, it’s less physically demanding.”
About a third of the workforce in England are aged 50 or over, with around 9mn people aged 50 to 64 and more than 1.3mn aged over 65. But not all employers are offering what is needed to retain older workers, or recognising the importance of recruiting them.
Emily Andrews, who is pushing to create equitable access to work for people in their fifties and sixties at the Centre for Ageing Better, a charitable foundation, says there should be more older people in the workforce.
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“Employers are still not trying to take advantage of what this demographic can bring,” Andrews says, adding that many workplaces do not have cultures that make room for older staff and show they are valued. Andrews also highlights that recruitment drives and the language used in job ads are also largely focused on hiring younger workers, and many employers — despite the pandemic — are not fully flexible in how staff may work. Companies often do not offer support for people — of any age — with health conditions, she adds, and workers aged 50 and over are the least likely to receive “off the job” training, impacting their ability to keep up to date with new skills and gain further employment.
Older workers often get caught in the “ableism and ageism nexus”, Andrews says, and in turn older employees internalise some of these features, taking a massive hit to their confidence.
Thomas Roulet, an associate professor in organisation theory at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, says there is still a “stigma” when it comes to hiring older workers. While a multigenerational organisation can be highly creative, it can also increase conflict.
“Both younger and older generations have prejudice against each other — older workers believe millennials are entitled and expect everything from their employer and an immediate pay-off. Younger workers believe older ones had it easy, and are incapable of adapting to new trends,” says Roulet.
Yet the reality is that millennials and older generations actually share the same motivational drivers and career goals. While older workers do not want special treatment, they do want to be on a level peg with younger staff.
Colin Serlin, who is 76, says older people need to think differently about how they work. After 40 years in the property business he took a masters degree in psychotherapy and will soon set up his own practice — The Unretiring — offering courses to the recently retired, developed in conjunction with therapists and academics. “People get bored, depressed and even more seriously ill as they don’t know what to do with themselves. I’m hoping to change that,” he says.
“People need to have a more entrepreneurial stance. Either to do something on their own or be a so-called ‘intrepreneur’ within a bigger organisation,” he added. “When individuals were in their twenties and thirties they often were led down a particular path. The main thing now is to re-evaluate what they want out of life. “They need to just have a different mindset.”