Why switching careers should be more accessible for older workers

Twenty years ago it wasn’t at all unusual to work for a single business all your working life. Switching employers wasn’t done with the frequency it is today and switching careers was even rarer.

However, the state pension was also more generous and given earlier in life, there was a Default Retirement Age (abolished in 2011) and the cost of living was lower. According to a report commissioned by the government on the valuable role older workers can play in our economy, by 2022 the number of people in the workforce aged 50 to State Pension age will have risen by 3.7 million, whilst the number aged 16-49 will have reduced by 700,000. Add that to a job market that is struggling to fill roles – WaveTrackR data has shown that applications in July decreased for a second month in a row and average applications per job have been decreasing since the start of the year, yet jobs continue to soar – and we have a problem. Clearly, we need older workers to stay in employment for longer and making it easier to switch careers might encourage and enable that.

By 2022 the number of people in the workforce aged 50 to State Pension age will have risen by 3.7 million.

A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit

Now that people are living longer and can’t afford to retire until later, the idea of having a series of careers over the course of your life is gaining momentum. An older generation of workers with a huge amount of job and life experience who want to side-step careers is a massively valuable, largely untapped resource. What often holds older workers back is a stigma that is completely inaccurate. Before the pandemic, almost 1 in 3 workers in the UK was aged 50 and over but they have also been amongst the hardest hit, with a huge number losing their jobs since 2020. Over-50s community and employment hub RestLess found that there was a nearly 300% rise in redundancies for those in their 60s in the final 3 months of 2020 and by August 2020 200,000 older workers had already been forced into early retirement. Further data from Rest Less showed that losing your job aged 50+ makes you twice as likely to be in unemployment for at least two years, meaning many are being forced into an early retirement that they may not want or be able to afford.

Now more than ever, with an ageing population and a market that is lean on candidates, leveraging the experienced, skilled talent source of older workers is crucial. A career change could be a way for older workers to keep working whilst avoiding burnout and employers and recruiters can together make career changes for older workers more accessible. How? These are some points to think about when recruiting:

Website imagery

If the only pictures you see on an employer’s or recruiter’s website are of far younger people, the messaging is that this isn’t the career or the company for you. It immediately seems inaccessible to you. This was the reason Lucy Kellaway founded Now Teach, an organisation that helps those with industry experience to switch careers into Education. She considered teaching earlier in her journalistic career, looked at PGCE courses and saw 20-somethings smiling back at her, leading her to believe that she was too old and had left it too late. Now Teach saw a 70% increase in applications per month between March and May 2020 and three times as many applications in October and November 2020 compared with the same months in 2019 as soaring numbers of older workers made a career pivot into Education. A picture paints a thousand words so make sure your website images represent a diverse group of people.

Conscious and unconscious bias

Just as with any other diverse group, bias at the recruiting stage will prevent many mature workers from progressing with a career change. Age discrimination and unconscious bias remain problematic in the jobs market. The previous social norm that everyone was expected to retire at 65 is slow to change but as an outdated stereotype, it needs to. It starts with the wording of your job ads – be sure not to use words that suggest a targeted age group, for example, “recent graduates”, “energetic”, or “young and dynamic”. The Centre for Ageing Better’s Shut Out report showed that many employers don’t consider age when looking to improve diversity and inclusion in recruitment and the language used in job advertisements can deter older workers from applying.

Think carefully about job ad must-haves

How many ‘must-haves’ on your job ad really are ‘must-haves’ and what could be off-set by experience and transferable skills and boosted by on-the-job training? An exhaustive set of must-haves will deter many candidates (for example, various studies have found that women need to believe that they can tick at least 80% of the boxes before they will apply for a job) and will make it harder for career changers.

Age-friendly policies and benefits

Older workers may want different ‘perks’ from a job than their younger colleagues. Policies such as phased retirement and family care leave, plus flexible working and healthcare schemes (the latter two of which are fast becoming expected amongst a wide demographic of the workforce) will help them to continue working.

On-the-job and/or mentor training

Offering training whilst working gives older workers the chance to re-train or re-skill without having to take time out of work and pay for training. It also means they can be hired straight into a role in which they will bring a range of experience and other skills. Mentorships can give career changers the support they need and can be reciprocal as older workers will have a great deal to teach younger workers too.

Mature apprenticeships

Doing an apprenticeship as an older worker means that you can keep earning a wage while you re-skill – an essential requirement for many that still have financial commitments. Apprenticeships are open to anyone over the age of 16 but in reality, the majority of those taking up apprenticeships are school leavers and young people. As with the issues Lucy Kellaway of Now Teach encountered, this is largely a PR problem. A separate apprenticeship programme targeted at mature workers would go some way to encourage workers seeking a career change later in life to apply for an apprenticeship. Greater funding for mature apprenticeships would also make a huge difference as those over 24 can be asked to contribute to the cost of training (the government increased the cash bonus scheme for hiring apprenticeships over 25 but that ends in September).

48% of those under 65 said they would still like to be in work between the ages of 65 and 70

Attitudes of the over 50s to Fuller Working Lives

In a surveyed report conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions on ‘Attitudes of the over 50s to Fuller Working Lives’, nearly half (48%) of those under 65 said they would still like to be in work between the ages of 65 and 70. The will is there for older workers to continue working and the economy will be boosted by it – it’s a win-win. If working lives are now going to be at least 50 years long, having just one career sounds like a recipe for burnout, fatigue and a huge loss of passion for the job you do. And yet embarking on an entirely new career later in life is still rare, mainly because it is not talked about or actively encouraged. More retraining schemes like Now Teach would be fantastic but employers and recruiters can help too, by removing the barriers to later life career changers and instead seeing the huge value such workers can bring to the workplace. 

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