What’s on offer to help unemployed over 50’s?

Beena Hammond looks at what kind of tailored support is available for older workers who are trying to get back to work. Although there isn’t much at the moment, campaigners are optimistic that things are changing.

Serious pensioner stares into the distance


It probably gets a bit tiresome to be told again and again that the over 50’s are more likely than any other demographic to be long-term unemployed. But the question of ‘what’s being done about it’ remains. The answer is, disappointingly, nothing much.

With nearly one third of the UK workforce aged 50 or over (more than 10 million workers), that’s a sizable chunk of people of this age group supporting the economy. Figures also show that one in eight leave work before they are ready.

Kim Chaplain, Associate Director for Work, at the Centre for Aging Better says: “There’s nothing special for employing older groups yet.”

She points to a lot of umbrella schemes which have become the Department of Work and Pensions catch-all approach to targeting the over 50’s along with all other ages. And, she says, it’s not working.

In an interview with AgeUK, Employment Minister Mims Davies talked about the Restart Programme. The programme is a £3bn package that is supposed to help a million people back into work by providing links to the local labour markets, and a ‘sector-based Work Academy Programme for all ages’ which is essentially a six-week placement. In the interview, she said: “’I’ve seen over 50’s move into new professions like teaching and construction through this.’”

What the Restart scheme does in fact is give Universal Credit claimants who have been out of work for at least 12 months support to find jobs in their local area. However, this ‘put everyone in the same bag’ approach isn’t working for older people, points out Kim.

“Nothing has been tailored for over 50’s. It’s more for youngsters who are vulnerable to unemployment, and there’s no equivalent of the Kickstart Scheme for older people too,” she says.

“When we look at generic programmes like the old Work programme and the Work and Health Programme, the performance for the over 50’s compared to a middle group is 40% lower.”

There are often calls for a Kickstart programmes for older people too, but Kim is not sure about that either.

“That largely appeals to anyone from school leaver to new graduate, pays them minimum wage for six months and is there to enable a foot in the door to a new job, as well as helping them get a stamp on their CV,” she says. “It’s not suitable for an older person who has quite the opposite problem; they have too much on their CVs and don’t know how to amend it for the current job market.”

She adds: “If you’re unable to work you go on these generic programmes, you do not do as well as people in the middle ground. It’s been like that for years. The only thing is there’s no real data to tell us why this is the case.”

Last summer, and along with the DWP,  the charity commissioned a piece of work with the Learning and Work Institute to see how over 50’s fared and highlighted the underperformance of programmes in the past. Kim says the DWP won’t separate [age] groups, though.

Covid impact

Kim also adds that the impact of Covid on over 50’s can’t be ignored either, with many older workers being at risk and having had to shield, which has added to their problems keeping or seeking out new work.

Ageism in the recruitment process and stereotypical views around employing older people are also a big problem.

“Age is the most ignored characteristic at work and they’ll [employers] wrap it up along with recruitment in a generalised diversity and inclusion strategy. No-one is championing the age characteristic,” says Kim.

And the ageism is often internalised.  “It’s not just the employers, but individuals themselves who shape and define themselves as old, so their expectations of the labour market are diminished,” says Kim.

David Sinclair, director at the ILC UK, agrees that there’s nothing really available for older people. A new report by the ILC and others says that employers are biased towards providing training to younger people rather than older people. It also says that, for a more inclusive workforce, employers need to embrace occupational health and ongoing support for their workers.

“There’s been some advancements towards new opportunities for funding to support lifelong learning and a Bill to potentially make it easier for people of all ages to access funding for learning, but there really isn’t anything else. There are no real alternatives to Kickstart for older people,” says Sinclair.

He adds that what is known is that, as people pass into their 50’s, it becomes increasingly harder to get a new job – and many people because of recent events have been made redundant.

“The work we’ve done in the last year shows there’s clearly economic benefit to supporting people to work longer and of course we’ve had long term growth in the employment of over 50’s, but now that growth has stalled,” says Sinclair.

He adds that there should be better access to courses and reskilling for older people.

Back to work pilots

Nevertheless, there are signs that campaigners are fighting back. The ILC is kicking off a call for innovative ideas and approaches to get start-ups to think about supporting older people in the workplace in new ways.

And the Centre for Ageing Better has set up two pilots to look into how to get the over 50’s back into work.

One stems around the decline of the automotive industry in the West Midlands, where a radical rethink was needed to tackle chronic worklessness experienced by the over 50’s, with data showing this group fell into an ‘unemployment trap’.

“One thing that came out from this group was that they only go to the job centre as a last resort,” says Kim. “They have a low expectation of Job Centre Plus and expect after redundancy that they will get another job.”

A lot came out of the pilot, she says, including informal virtual coaching sessions set up by former employees for newly redundant ones.

“So, we’re thinking about how to combine all of this, and create hubs of mature workers.”

There are also new opportunities because of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. “Most people need to reskill for sectors to grow, and a Job Centre couldn’t help with that. But there are positions in retail and entry level jobs which could be right for older workers,” says Kim.

In Greater Manchester, the Centre for Ageing Better is working with the DWP to get bespoke employment support for over 50’s.

“The DWP wanted us to focus on the economically inactive, so targeting those not on Universal Credit, but those who are prevented from working because of health or caring responsibilities, who are not being supported,” says Kim.

“What we’re seeing from that is how services are being delivered. People like advisers to be the same age as them. They don’t like job centres. They don’t see them as providing services for them. Also, there’s an assumption that this cohort struggles in terms of digital applications, but the truth is, they don’t; they just don’t have the connectivity they need.”

She says the DWP want to use the data collected to provide more bespoke services through their Restart providers specifically for this group.

Despite the lack of tailored support generally, Kim is optimistic that the pilots and other work will make a change and that this time next year there will be something for older workers, for instance, more mentoring schemes.

She also says there is likely to be more of a ‘menu of options’ offering clear signposting and bespoke services, as well as more specially trained advisers in Job Centre Plus. She says: “We are working alongside organisations on what this menu could look like. We’re piloting that now and hope that it will be adopted next year.”

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