When Audrey Worsley tried to find a full-time secretarial job after a ten-year career break, she was faced with an increasingly common problem; despite having plenty of the required experience, she couldn’t even get an interview.
“I felt there were loads of barriers because of my age,” the 63-year old educational support worker said of her time trying to get back into the workforce. “I’ve had a positive experience in education, [they] didn’t ask my age when I started, but it was a massive issue in other areas I tried to get into. I don’t think there’s enough help out there for women who want to go back into the workforce.”
Ms Worsley’s experience is not unusual. According to a recent study by Anglia Ruskin University, older applicants are over four times less likely to be offered an interview despite having more experience on their CV, with almost half of all unemployed people aged 50 to 64 out of a job for over a year.
This is a big problem for the UK. Recruiters warned barely a week ago that while the appetite for hiring is on the up, candidate availability is at a 16-month low, with EU nationals hesitant to apply for roles amid Brexit uncertainty. That nervousness sits on top of existing estimates that there will be an extra 14.5m jobs created in the UK over the next five years – but only seven million young people entering the workforce.
Likely immigration controls post-Brexit will deepen that skills shortage unless employers take the opportunity to tap into the talent of older workers, something Aviva’s UK boss Andy Briggs – who became the Government’s business champion for older workers last October – is urging British companies to do as the retirement age edges further away.
“I can’t see how the Government can come out of the Brexit negotiations with anything other than a significant shift in immigration, that was the core of people’s concerns,” he warns.
If this is the case, then the skills gap is going to become ever more obvious, Briggs believes. And the only possible fillip will be older workers.
With the Recruitment and Employment Confederation last week pointing to a shortage of suitable candidates for over 60 different roles, ranging from cleaner to accountant, businesses might want to listen to Mr Briggs’s plea for one-million shades of grey. His pitch is simple – if Britain hires an extra one million staff aged between 50 and 69 in the next five years, GDP could be boosted by an extra £88?bn.
But the insurance veteran is not the only person pushing for change. Anna Dixon, the chief executive of Ageing Better, says she is calling on the next government to support the rights of working carers so that older workers don’t have to leave the workforce when caring for elderly parents – something that contributes to the fact that only about half of people are in work by the time they reach the state pension age.
“Even if we could get every young person a job there would still be a [skills] gap,” she said, agreeing that Brexit is likely to exacerbate this problem but also pose an opportunity.
“Tighter immigration [post-Brexit] could mean even bigger labour market shortage, [so] we do think it’s essential for the economy that older workers are retained and supported for longer.”
Age bias is deeply ingrained, however, with Mr Briggs pointing out that there are misconceptions that older people will be less resilient and take more sick days. It’s the younger ones, he jokes, who are going out and getting “absolutely hammered” while also being more likely to jump between jobs as they look to climb the career ladder.
Dr Nick Dydakis, from Anglia Ruskin University, said that businesses’ beliefs over the effects of ageing on productivity and performance are misunderstood – there is nothing to support the stereotype that older workers are less innovative or less emotionally resilient, he argues, adding that there are a number of studies proving performance rises with age.
“Social dialogue should be an integral part of the Brexit process of changing attitudes and establishing more inclusive workplaces,” he urged, pointing out that now is a good chance for British businesses to address bias against older workers. But with the chances of getting an interview proven to be four times harder for older workers than it is for younger adults, those eager to work are being pushed towards setting up their own business – a move that, while exciting, comes with a huge amount of financial risk given that most start-ups fold within their first five years.
“People shaken out of the labour market a decade ago are finding it difficult to go back into work,” said Aston University Prof Mark Hart, noting that the number of 50-plus entrepreneurs is steadily rising. “There’s all sorts of schemes getting people into start-ups and that message is working – my problem is we have the worst record for start-ups breaking into being a macro-enterprise.”
That doesn’t mean grey-haired entrepreneurs don’t have an edge, with many bouncing back from a change in circumstance to launch successful companies later in life. When the financial crisis hit 62 year-old William Fairclough’s house building business “unimaginably hard”, he decided to head down a new path by launching industrial strap company Cargo Rack, before overcoming significant hurdles to relaunch a house building company some years later.
For Stephen Bruh, the 71-year old founder and chief executive of Astro Jet, a London-based company that charters private planes, spending 35 years working for an upmarket design house meant that when his circumstances changed at the age of 55, he knew exactly how to turn his passion for flying into a successful business.
“By virtue of connections and good luck, I was able to get contracts to manage a number of private aircraft, which involved both providing crews, administration and, of course, flying the planes,” he said of his career switch, noting that he spent his first-ever salary from a job in a clothing factory on getting a private pilot’s license.
“So a childhood passion became a business,” he added. “Today I look forward to continuing to work.”