Lucie Mitchell investigates the various reasons older workers have reconsidered their working lives after Covid.
As we come out of the first part of the pandemic, growing numbers of over 50s are realising there is more to life than work and are choosing to leave their jobs in search of a greater work-life balance or change of career.
A survey by WorkingWise.co.uk last year revealed that 94% of older workers believed that work-life balance is important or very important; and 72% said they would like to reduce their hours. Plus, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are 250,000 more people aged 50-64 years old who are economically inactive, compared to before the Covid pandemic.
“We know that a significant number of older workers have left the labour market, and at the moment they are choosing not to return,” remarks Kim Chaplain, specialist advisor for work at the Centre for Ageing Better. “Their motivation is not always clear. What we do know, though, is that for those who are thinking about returning, flexible working will be a key motivating factor.”
It would seem that the pandemic has prompted some older workers to reconsider how they feel about work and think about how they can do things differently to achieve a better quality of life.
“The pandemic has pushed decisions about acceptable working practices closer to the top of the priority lists for workers in their 40s and 50s,” comments Lucia Knight, MD of Midlife Unstuck. “Many mature workers used their non-working or non-commuting time productively, to assess whether their current work offered them what they needed and wanted to feel satisfied. And many companies were unprepared, unable or unwilling to adapt to their desired changes, so workers took their careers into their own hands.”
The shift to home working and different working practices has therefore made some older people question why they are still in jobs that are too demanding or where they don’t feel valued – and come to the realisation that they could potentially quit and do something more meaningful instead. Yet, of course, deliberately leaving jobs and working fewer hours most often means taking a pay cut too. So how can people afford to do this?
“Not all mature workers have been able to jog off into the sunset to retire early or work part time,” says Knight. “Many have slimmed down their lifestyle spending to levels thought impossible pre-pandemic. This has afforded them a previously unavailable opportunity to simply work differently. Many viewed the pandemic as their now-or-never moment to nudge them to resign.”
Simon Roderick, MD of financial services recruitment firm Fram Search, says this generation of workers have also been big beneficiaries of the huge house price rises of the late 90s and early 2000s. “Many have built up large amounts of equity, or been able to pay off their mortgage early, and this has given them the opportunity to pursue other interests,” he says.
According to Chaplain, there isn’t anything to suggest there is a significant gender imbalance in people moving from employment to inactivity. However, she does point out that it may be more challenging for women to quit their jobs or retire early. “Most people cannot afford not to work – in particular many women do not have a pension pot that is sufficient to allow them to comfortably retire yet,” she says.
Indeed, a recent Workingwise.co.uk survey found that half of women believe they will not be able to afford to retire at state pension age, and 53% think they won’t be financially independent in old age.
Knight says she is seeing more older men work with her to prepare to resign. “When women are the primary or equal ‘breadwinner’, they appear to have far less confidence about resigning – and getting the same flexibility they have earned in their current company – even if that company is not valuing them or their skills as much as they should.”
However, one woman who decided to quit her job in the wake of Covid is Mandy, aged 59 from Hampshire. She was working in hospitality and says the pandemic accelerated her decision to leave.
“Hospitality was immediately impacted by Covid. Economic output was almost halved, I could see the way things were going and, to be honest, it felt like the right time to take my leave and look for something new. I heard about Good Life Sorted, a company that connects people with older, vulnerable people in their area so that they can provide help with whatever that older person needs. They were actively looking for helpers in my area, so I jumped at the chance.”
Mandy’s husband still works full time, so was able to support her financially, but she says that even though she is now earning less money, she does at least feel more in control. “I was able to plan the hours myself and set the pay scale myself. Once I realised how much I enjoyed this new role, I took on more clients and now I balance my time between supporting my clients and enjoying myself. While my income may be less than it was, I’m richer in every other way.”
Pam* had been working for an IT consultancy until she decided to take voluntary redundancy to achieve a better work-life balance. “After 30 years working in high pressure, exciting and demanding roles, voluntary redundancy seemed to be a great opportunity.”
The pandemic also had an impact on her decision. “By being at home during the pandemic, it was even more obvious to me that I wasn’t making best use of the time I had with my husband – he got through some significant health troubles and is now fit and well, and I was working 13 hours a day.”
The redundancy pay-out helped Pam in the short-term; plus, she was within five years of potentially retiring anyway and she has savings that are being re-arranged to support this time. She is now retraining as a business and executive coach. “I don’t plan to return to full-time work and am keen to get to a better balance in life as we move forward to this next stage.”
With this mass exodus of older workers, it’s clear that employers need to offer flexibility to this demographic and ensure they feel valued and supported.
“Being offered part-time working, the chance to work flexibly, and taking on a less demanding role were the three top reasons retirees over 50 gave that would have encouraged them to work for longer,” remarks Chaplain. “More than one in three workers who left employment during the pandemic, and would consider coming back to work, said they would return for a job with flexible working hours.”
Alan Price, CEO of Bright HR, adds that older employees are often more interested in the benefits a job can offer them, rather than just the salary. “To attract them, show them the benefits they’re interested in, such as healthcare and retirement benefits, competitive pension plans and wellness programmes.”
*Name has been changed