Too often overlooked and under-appreciated, mature workers have been singled out as the culprits behind elevated rates of labour market inactivity that are feeding inflation and creating economic headaches for employers and policymakers alike.

At the heart of last week’s shocking inflation figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was a deeply concerning rise in core prices, which strips out more volatile factors like food and energy costs, and which rose from 6.8% to 7.1% in May. This was driven in large part by the UK’s dominant services sector, where increases in salaries to keep up with the surging cost of living is feeding through into the inflationary loop.

In a tight labour market where employers have been forced to bid up to secure staff, the loss of more than 170,000 EU workers in the wake of Brexit has of course weighed significantly. However, among those who pushed for Britain to leave the European Union it’s more politically expedient to look elsewhere when laying blame and seeking solutions, and thus those older workers with the means to retire early came into focus in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s “Back to Work” budget in March.

Mr Hunt set aside about £70 million to finance a series of measures to entice those who have left the labour market into returning, and specifically targeted early retirees by scrapping the lifetime cap on tax-free pension contributions.

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In reality, though, the former standard lifetime allowance of just more than £1.07m was a cap that many will never breach and is therefore unlikely to have significant impact outside a fairly limited number of occupations. A more fundamental strategy to break down the barriers of ageism is required if government and industry are truly serious about regaining and retaining older workers.

Back in March Mr Hunt also pledged backing for mid-career apprenticeships and other programmes to support the repatriation of over-50s to the labour market. This is where the heavy lifting begins.

A survey of more than 2,000 workers over the age of 45 released at the end of last year by advice website WorkingWise found that 48% of those considering retiring said it was because they were fed up with their job. This was significantly higher than the 38% who said ill health – the biggest component driving economic inactivity in the UK – would cause them to retire.

The Herald: Jeremy HuntJeremy Hunt (Image: Copyright: Archant 2018)

In addition, 55% of those questioned said they had encountered ageism in the recruitment process. More than half experienced it in the application process, 30% came across it in job adverts, and for 33% it occurred during interviews.

In a further stinging indictment of the stigma attached to older workers, research released last month by Business in the Community suggested that employers are doing less to encourage and support mature staff to take up learning and development opportunities than their younger colleagues.

The research, conducted by YouGov, found just 21% of those between the ages of 50 and 59 felt their employer pushes them to upskill within their job. That compared to 56% of those between the ages of 18 and 29.

A record number of over-50s have left the workplace since the pandemic, and skills shortages are at an all-time high of little more than one unemployed adult for every unfilled vacancy. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that the threadbare stereotype of older workers being lazy or unable to grasp new skills continues to prevail underneath a surface of diplomatic rhetoric about inclusivity.

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According to hospitality recruitment platform Barcats, 70% of pub and restaurant bosses believe that over-50s could be the solution to acute recruitment issues that have plagued the sector’s recovery since the lifting of Covid lockdown restrictions.

It’s said to be a similar story elsewhere with a new report by Aviva finding that 76% of employers across a variety of sectors claiming it is important to retain workers over the age of 50, with almost a third of those saying it is “very important”. Indeed, organisations as diverse as Axa, McDonald’s and easyJet have been actively seeking new routes to reach over-50s recruits.

But despite the high number of those trumpeting the vital contribution of mature staff in yesterday’s report from Axa, only 10% of organisations questioned had introduced support for retraining older workers during the past year. Too many still lack a clear strategy for engaging and meeting the needs of this demographic.

According to the ONS, the most important considerations among those who would consider returning from retirement are flexible working hours (32%), good pay (23%), and being able to work from home (12%).

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“It is commonly felt that careers should follow a linear upward trajectory, moving up the ranks with age,” said Debbie Bullock, head of wellbeing at Aviva. “However, it seems some older workers also value flexibility, the social company, enjoyment, and general wellbeing that comes with a job, rather than fulfilling promotion aspirations.”

Working into life’s later years is not every individual’s ambition, of course, but for some it is economic necessity. The ONS noted last month that nearly 100,000 early retirees have returned to the job market as the cost-of-living crisis bears down, the assumption being that many are struggling to make ends meet on their pension income.

But neither business nor government should rely solely on financial difficulties forcing people back into employment. Many mature people have the energy and passion for work, but they’re also experienced enough to insist on doing so in a way that suits their lifestyle.

More than a third of the UK workforce is already over the age of 50, and predictions are that half the UK’s adult population will be beyond their 50th birthday by 2030. That means employers have less than a generation to figure out they intend to bridge the ageing divide.