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by Louise Wilson
17 January 2024
Put out to pasture? Older workers could be the solution to skills shortages

The increase in the number of people classed as economically inactive has been driven by over 50s | Photography: Alamy

Put out to pasture? Older workers could be the solution to skills shortages

“I’ve a lot of life experience and transferrable skills to offer but I have recently been turned down for jobs because I don’t have the right pieces of paper,” says Lara, a former police officer with over 30 years’ experience.

“When I started work it was usual to receive in-house training and that was all that was required… These days you have to tick all the right boxes to even get past the computer systems and get shortlisted for interview. It can feel like actual experience doesn’t count.”

Now in her 50s, Lara left policing after finding it difficult to balance the demands of the job with health concerns. She says her menopause symptoms became a “real challenge” which ultimately impacted on her work. But in trying to find a new position, she faced problems – around hiring processes, around flexibility and around perceived skills gaps.

“Many older workers have a very strong work ethic,” she continues. “There’s still so much we need to do to bridge the gap between how our workplaces currently are and how we need them to be.”

The sad irony is that often it’s the people that were forced out that are the ones that need to work for longer

The problems Lara describes are commonly shared among over-50s, and it can often lead to them leaving the labour force entirely. The recent increase in the number of people classed as economically inactive – those not in employment nor seeking work – has been largely driven by people aged 50 to 64. While economic inactivity increased across all age groups during the pandemic as a result of furlough, the rate among older people of working age has remained high post-pandemic while other age groups have recovered.

Following an inquiry, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee concluded early retirement was the “key driver”. But reasons for early retirement can differ hugely, and research from the Centre for Ageing Better found major differences between those actively choosing to retire and those who were in effect driven out of the labour market.

Luke Price, senior policy manager, explains: “This inequality is quite stark when you look at income. The people who are better off, on higher incomes, are often those that were likely to say, ‘I want to change my life’ or ‘it’s time to retire and explore other things’. It was people on much lower incomes who were forced out by poor health and caring responsibilities. And the sad irony is that often it’s the people that were forced out that are the ones that need to work for longer because of the financial implications of not being able to work.”

A lack of flexibility from employers to help people navigate changing life circumstances often drives people, like Lara, away. It can also prevent them from finding a new job.

 Adobe Stock Library

Tony Wilson, the director of the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “You can generally only get flexible working if you’ve already got a job. Very few jobs are advertised flexible – fewer than one in five jobs are advertised as being flexible or available part time. So you do need to be in work really to get that flexibility, and then it depends on your employer and how responsive they are.”

He explains that often flexible working is seen as “something for special groups” such as new mums or disabled workers, when in fact more and more staff are seeking more flexible options for a whole host of reasons. Older people in particular are often feeling “squeezed between childcare and elder care,” he adds, as they are frequently juggling looking after both grandchildren and their parents.

Wilson says: “The challenge we want to set employers is to try think about flexibility as a default and think more broadly about policies around equality and inclusion at work – not about how we are adapting to particular groups, but more about how we think differently about what we can offer in general and how it might work… What’s good for older people will also be good for parents, and increasingly good for younger people, many of whom want more diverse working patterns and careers, and it’ll be good for disabled people and people with health conditions.”

Price agrees: “Flexible working should be reason neutral. And what I mean by that is ultimately it shouldn’t really matter why someone’s requesting flexible working, as long as it works for the job and the organisation and the individual. That’s good for people of all ages – but it’s particularly good for older workers who might have to juggle health conditions and caring responsibilities, or in the context of retirement they may want to continue working but work slightly less.”

We don’t really have a general employment service, we’ve got a claimant employment service

There is also a problem with the provision of employment support for older workers. Part of this issue is one of outreach – programmes already in existence don’t tend to be accessed by this age group.

Wilson says: “People generally only can access employment support if they’re claiming the relevant benefit, which is generally Universal Credit, and specifically being in the ‘searching for work’ group of Universal Credit. That’s a fraction of a fraction. It’s a fraction of the people on Universal Credit, and Universal Credit is a fraction of people who are outside work.”

The most recent statistics from the DWP highlight there are fewer Universal Credit claimants between 50 and 64 than younger cohorts. “The employment support offer generally is very narrow. We don’t really have a general employment service, we’ve got a claimant employment service,” Wilson adds.

While there is slightly more provision for employment services in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, he says these are being put at risk as finances are squeezed. That fear is borne out in the recent Scottish budget in which employability was slashed by £30m, skills by £13m and lifelong learning by £5m. In addition, many employment services are currently delivered via local authorities, but “if your local authority wants to set other priorities, and many of them will, the risk is you might slip between the cracks,” Wilson says.

The issue is not just of provision. Price argues that “employment support services aren’t really working that well” for older people. “Employment support services historically had very poor outcomes. Basically, the older you are on these programmes, the less likely you are to find work.”

The support that many older workers tend to need is about understanding their skillsets and how to sell themselves. “They’ve built loads of skills and amassed loads of useful things that they could use in other jobs, transferable skills, but they’re not necessarily aware that they’re
transferable, or they’re not really sure how you package that up and sell that to an employer,” Price says.

Then there’s the assumption that older people are not interested in skills and training. Age discrimination is one aspect – Wilson said there is “a lot of overt and covert discrimination against older people” and Price agrees it is a “huge problem”. But enterprise body Prosper (formally the Scottish Council for Development and Industry) also highlighted that “more complex life circumstances and lack of funding can create barriers to access” in its 2020 Upskilling Scotland report.

The need to improve career progression opportunities for older workers was one of the major recommendations from a report published by professional HR body CIPD Scotland last year, which also called for the introduction of “enhanced and buildable individual learning accounts”.

There’s a real need for lifelong learning to have much more currency than it currently does

The author of that report, Marek Zemanik, a senior policy adviser at CIPD, tells Holyrood: “When it comes to skills and education budgets in Scotland, they are very much front-loaded, aimed at younger people that are starting their careers… Very often you’ll face assumptions that because these employees are approaching the end of their working lives, they will not be interested in it. It’s very important that we avoid these sorts of assumptions. There are older employees out there who would be very interested in reskilling, upskilling, prolonging their careers, changing their careers.”

Naturally this is an issue that both government and employers need to pick up on. “Sometimes it’s difficult to untangle what role the employer has and what the role of government has because both need to play their part,” he adds. “We know, for example, training and investment by employers has fallen in Scotland since 2011, as evidenced by the latest employer skills survey. So there’s a lot more employers could be doing when it comes to investing in skills.”

As for government, he says there needs to be a “significant boost to lifelong learning” as well as a continuing push of the fair work agenda.

The Age-friendly Academy, which sits within the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Lifelong Learning, is one example of how such programmes can be delivered. Launched in 2017, it is attended by 2,500 learners a year – and specifically aims to reach over 50s.

Alix McDonald, head of the centre, agrees that too often the narrative around skills development is “youth-driven and youth-centred”, which means the needs of older people are overlooked.

“We developed as part of the Scottish Funding Council’s upskilling initiative,” she says. “We developed a range of modules for transferable skills for work which were aimed at people who were in mid to late career. They were centred around things like confidence building or rebuilding for people who’d been out of the workforce for some time and wanting to get back into it, or had been in the same role for a long time and wanted to make a change.”

Because these courses are aimed at older learners, they provide a space specifically for them. Often the people who enrol are not initially thinking about work-related benefits, but the confidence the programme builds means they keep coming back, sitting exams and earning qualifications.

McDonald adds: “The university’s role around lifelong learning is really interesting. I think we have both a civic responsibility and an opportunity as a university to provide that. Strathclyde has stuck to that throughout the last however many decades, we’re quite proud of that. But I think there’s a real need for lifelong learning to have much more currency than it currently does.

Getting this right, there’s benefits for those individuals, but also for those employers

“Terminology is interesting because there’s so many terms out there – upskilling, microcredentials, CPD, short courses. But for me, all of that is lifelong learning in one guise or another… All of that is equally valid in the appropriate circumstance. I do think it’s something that is undervalued and under-resourced.”

For Wilson, it all goes back to the point about flexibility. “There’s a really important point here which is about not viewing these challenges as health challenges or age challenges, it’s about flexibility.

“We have some really good survey data from the ONS looking at older people out of work, and asking what would make them consider coming back. It’s exactly the same sort of things that many of us would want. They’re wanting greater flexibility, they want work to be closer to home, be a better match for their skills and that they would enjoy.”

And Zemanik highlights the knock-on benefits of getting the skills agenda right for the wider economy. “We are in a very tight labour market. Unemployment is very, very low. Businesses are struggling for talent, a skill shortage and labour shortage is reported in just about every industry, employers are looking to try and expand their labour pools as much as they can. Some of the things that they try to do are, for example, put in place more flexible working.

“But one of the other things is try and reach people that they would normally not reach. Older workers are a really, really big chunk of the population, and that’s only projected to increase. So in getting this right, there’s benefits for those individuals, but also for those employers and therefore for the country.”

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