Not retiring: the problem of job dissatisfaction

Job dissatisfaction was a major reason for older people quitting the workforce during the pandemic, but what is driving that and what can we do about it?

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There has been a lot of talk of late about why older people left the workforce during the pandemic as policymakers worry about labour shortages – which seem likely to last for some time despite rising redundancies. In the years before the pandemic health was increasingly driving economic inactivity and that has continued, with health treatment delays exacerbating the situation. The focus is on getting those who have dropped out for health reasons back to work, but what if at least some of them can’t work?

Another reason given was people who could afford to choosing to take early retirement. In part that was the result of wanting to do other things, but to a large degree it was due to job dissatisfaction, as a new survey highlights. This is in line with our survey findings. Last year’s survey found 63% would like to take early retirement, with 48% saying this was due to dissatisfaction with their job and 34% due to health issues, 13% due to caring responsibilities and 15% because they could draw down their pension early.

This year’s survey is running now and it will be interesting to see if anything has changed, particularly in light of the policy focus on getting people back to work and the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Having to go to work does not address the issue of job dissatisfaction, however. Job dissatisfaction can be about many different things. It can be about being overlooked for promotion or training, feeling excluded, being bored, buckling under increasing pressure [in part due to labour shortages], not being supported at work when it comes to issues such as health or caring responsibilities or grief and so forth.

Job dissatisfaction itself needs a fair bit of interrogation, which is where finding out – anonymously, if necessary – what older people and, by extension, every worker, thinks about the work they do comes in. Are they fed up? If so, what can be done about it? There has been a lot of interest in mental health first aid and the like of late, more so since the pandemic. This is a good thing in that it raises awareness of mental health, but too often the very things that workplaces can do something about and that affect our mental health significantly – that is, work itself – is not included in the mix of mental health support. That includes job design, flexible working, opportunities to move both upwards and sideways, feeling heard and feeling some sense of control over what you do.

It can be hard to make the case for finding out how people feel about the work they do, but in terms of retention and also productivity it is surely crucial. I speak to older people all the time and what strikes me often is how much they have to offer if only someone would take the time to tease that out. That is no doubt true of everyone. In interviews about their working lives some people say that no-one has ever asked them about their lives before. It strikes me that that shows a recruitment process that is not functioning properly. Surely it would be better to have conversations with people about their working lives than make them face the kind of adversarial, high stress panels with questions about their five-year plan or whatever that are still the norm? Wouldn’t that lead not just to a better fit between job and person, but also be more rewarding for recruiters, opening up more possibilities for employers to explore in the long run?

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