“The older workforce is the workforce”

Kim Chaplain, of the Centre for Ageing Better, talks to us ahead of National Older Workers Week, sponsored by Phoenix Group.

Kim Chaplain


Read about National Older Workers Week

Kim Chaplain says that older workers are far from a niche group – in fact they are central to solving the UK’s labour shortages and economic malaise. “The older workforce is the workforce. That’s what’s happening in this country,” says Chaplain (pictured above), a special advisor for work at the Centre for Ageing Better.

Like many western countries, the UK has an ageing population. Over half of UK adults are forecast to be over 50 by 2030. Over 18% of people in England and Wales are already over 65, according to the 2021 census, up from roughly 16% a decade earlier. At the same time, UK businesses have been struggling with severe worker shortages over the past two years, partly due to high numbers of people over 50 leaving the workforce.

WorkingWise.co.uk’s National Older Workers Week, which starts on 21 November, will host a series of panel events about how to hire and retain older workers. Chaplain, who spent over 30 years as a civil servant working on many aspects of employment before joining the Centre for Ageing Better, will be one of our speakers.

“We’re living in the middle of a big change”

Grey-haired man working on a laptop

Chaplain says the government, businesses, and workers themselves are starting to shift their mindsets around older workers. This is partly down to the events of recent months – many employers are trying to attract workers of all ages due to labour shortages, while many employees are having to work longer or “unretire” due to the cost–of-living crisis. 

But even if these crises ebb, the UK will still have an ageing population that needs different approaches to work. “Employers need to care more [about older workers]…but also the government needs to help them care more,” says Chaplain. She adds that the state provides “shedloads of incentives” for employers to hire young people, such as the Kickstart scheme

In addition, workers – which means all of us – need to change our expectations of how long our working lives will be and what they will look like. “The ‘working life’ that we still think about was designed in the mid-20th century, when life expectancy was much shorter,” says Chaplain. “We’re living in the middle of a big change.”

The Centre for Ageing Better carries out several projects to improve older people’s lives. It helps to design services and processes that support older workers, and uses these as best-practice examples to inspire employers. It is also part of the “What Works network”, which uses best-practice examples to advise the government on public services.

Going off the employment grid

When older people leave the workforce it can become very hard to reach them, in order to ask them if they want to return to work and what barriers they face. They often don’t claim benefits, instead going ‘off the grid’ and leaving the employment system altogether.

“A lot of [this group] are not signing on or claiming Universal Credit, because their partner has got an income or they’ve got enough to get by for a while… So there’s an awful lot of people who are just not attached to anything, not having a conversation about work,” Chaplain says. 

The older-worker exodus, which began during the Covid pandemic, has prompted research this year into why people have left and what would lure them back. The cocktail of reasons for leaving include work-life balance, health issues, and caring responsibilities. But over half of people aged 50+ who had left the workforce said they would consider returning, depending on issues such as whether an employer could offer flexible working.

Chaplain says it’s vital to reach those who have left promptly, via any services that they are already using: “We know that if people don’t get back into work quickly, like within three months, the chances are they’ll become long-term unemployed.”

So, what can employers do to find and keep older workers?

Chaplain says employers need to consider five central issues:

  1. Culture – Does your workplace have a culture that understands older workers? This is crucial – if you have great workplace policies, but you don’t have the right culture on the shop-floor, then you won’t see much impact.
  2. Recruitment: Review your recruitment processes and “age-proof” them. For job adverts, what language and images are you using, and where are you posting them? For interviews, could you share questions in advance? Older workers often have a lot of information to share and advance notice helps them to select what to say.
  3. Flexibility: Be flexible with working hours and locations, in jobs where this is possible. Older workers often need flexibility to continue working – they might care for a partner or help out with grandchildren, for example.
  4. Health support: Are you understanding when it comes to time off for medical appointments? Do you offer health insurance or perks such as menopause support? These benefits often matter more to older workers than high pay.
  5. Career development: Older workers often still want to have training, but they might not get much from training that’s aimed at younger employees. They usually need to update their skills, not learn something from scratch. Look at your data to see who’s participating in your training – if older workers aren’t attending, find out why.


Chaplain will also be a judge at WM People’s 2023 Top Employer Awards, which contains a “Best for Older Workers” category. WM People is WorkingWise.co.uk’s parent company.

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