OPINION: Don't write them off! Why over-50s are sought-after workers

Two friends having conversation at work, woman in her 50s wearing glasses smiling and facing female

Workers over 50 are no longer just plodding through the latter years of their working careers, says Rachel Moore - Credit: Getty Images

What is middle age in 2021? When do you hit mid-life and how long do you stay there?

Those of us closer to 60 than 50 feel that ‘middle-aged’ has dragged on for 15 years, and we’re still there. It hit at 40 and the label still lingers like a bad smell more than a decade later.

Far from being on the home stretch of working life like our parents, for so many people their 50s signal the start of another decade-plus at work, career changes, striking out with new enterprise ventures, and even training for something totally new.

The shape of life in 2021 looks very different to when we started working in the early 1980s and late 1970s. It’s even more different to expectations than a year ago.

Lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic.

Loss, sickness, taking on caring responsibilities and catastrophic changes has changed lives forever. The most organised, resilient and super-planners hadn’t planned for what’s happened in the last 12 months, leaving upturned priorities.

Work is the key stability for many to build a new future on.

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Nearly a third of the UK workforce was over 50 at the start of the pandemic.

State pension age has been kicked down the road to 67 for many, private pensions took a kicking last year, and far from being ready to take it easy, full-time work for the foreseeable still figures in most people’s life plan

And not just through necessity – likely to rise even more post-pandemic as lockdown has shone a light on broken relationships, marriages have broken up and mid-lifers find themselves single, with assets split and decades more work ahead to re-stock the pot – but because a lot of people enjoy going to work and what they do.

It’s taken a while, but employers and the government are beginning to catch up and realise the post-50 workforce is a valuable resource that needs and deserves nurturing, and supporting, to feel their way ahead.

Norfolk and Suffolk are among 10 UK areas chosen to trial new ‘Mid-life MOTs’ for workers over 50.

Employers can now apply to the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership’s 50 Plus Choices scheme for funding to develop and implement the mid-life MOTs with their staff to find out if they need new skills, to support the to work for longer, flexibility to work around caring responsibilities and any workplace or healthy lifestyle needs they have to make the most out of this valuable resource.

It’s to be celebrated because, slowly this age group is emerging from the twilight, no longer invisible and deemed worth investing in, at last.

Society is waking up that over-50s still have potential, so much to give, all reinforced by an armoury of experience and expertise.

What they say might not be what employers want to hear.

They are often sandwiched tightly by grown-up children living at home again after pandemic redundancy and caring burdens of elderly parents, going through late-life divorces, managing health conditions, the list goes on in ways over-50s are squeezed and crunched by growing priorities.

But they still need, and want, to work with a lot to give, but it has to work for everyone.

That’s where mid-life MOTs can be invaluable - for employers to listen and acknowledge what individuals need to give their best for the next 10 years, and what they do to make that happen.

That might be flexible hours to allow exercise sessions for their mental and physical health and home working for part of the week.

Home working during Covid has revealed that employees are not children that need constant supervision. As long as someone gets their work done, does it matter where or when they do it?

Employment rates among the 50-pluses have steadily risen, reaching a historic high before the pandemic, with a record 10.7 million people aged 50 and over in work. A year ago, at least 80% of employment growth in the UK was estimated to come from workers over the age of 50.

They have been labelled the ‘lost generation’ with fears that those who have lost their jobs in retail, the service and hospitality sectors, cultural and creative industries and events may never work again and more likely to suffer long-term unemployment than other age groups.

After the last recession, women could retire at 60 and receive their state pension. Today it’s 66 or 67.

Mid life MOTs will help to harness the potential of workers, regardless of their age, which will be crucial in the post-pandemic recovery.

But workers have to do their bit too to remain relevant and prepare to learn new skills.

Jokes about being the office dinosaur and a technophobe don’t cut it.

It’s not enough to turn up and do what you’ve done for the last 20 years, clutching on to inefficient laborious 30-year-old systems because you’re comfortable with them. It’s about doing what’s best for the business and taking skills training.

Good employers will be trying to access these funds now to do right by their older workforce, which could be a secret to future success.

Find out more about New Anglia LEP’s 50 Plus Choices (Fuller working Lives) project and two events next month.