How many times have we heard the guilt-inducing complaint that older workers are blocking opportunities for younger people? Or worse: the Panorama line that we’re all on the scrapheap?
These claims, you will be glad to hear, turn out to be myths. In fact, the problems are quite the reverse. The startling truth is that, far from there being hordes of eager young whippersnappers waiting for us to clear our desks, there simply aren’t enough skilled younger workers to replace us.
And as our population ages, younger ‘emerging leaders’ are set to become an endangered species. By the year 2030, Britain will be short of 1.3 million younger workers, according to research by business analysts White Water Strategies. Their findings indicate that the British and other Western economies are heading for a ‘leadership cliff’.
The main reason, says WWS director Francois Moscovici, is the unprecedented population bubble created by the baby boom of the post-war years, between 1946 and 1964, when 17 million of us made our debuts.
“As baby boomers get older, the number reaching retirement age is growing steadily, reaching a peak of 807,000 in 2012,” he says. “With fewer people aged between 30 and 44 coming along to replace them, a major gap is opening up and is set to widen further in years ahead. But we can’t import people, as the gap in other countries will be even bigger. China faces the biggest disaster of all, thanks to its one-child policy.”
This lack of people isn’t the only problem in Britain’s workforce. The lack of skills has led to the majority of Britain’s employers experiencing recruitment difficulties in the last year, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s annual Resourcing and Talent Planning Survey.
Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) said they came across a lack of specialist or technical skills, with management and technical positions most difficult to fill. Three-quarters also reported an increase in the number of unsuitable candidates. As the CIPD’s Claire McCartney put it: “High levels of unemployment have boosted quantity, but employers are still struggling with quality.”
All this means that, far from being unwanted leftovers, older workers – and the years of experience they have under their belts – are now sought-after commodities in the workplace. Employers are scrambling to take account of this demographic change, with ‘age management’ becoming the new buzzword.
“Many companies are very worried about the loss of informal knowledge,” says Francois Moscovici. “If you think about it, every time someone retires after a long career, a vast amount of knowledge and experience is lost. As a result, employers are looking to older workers – and in some cases re-hiring them after retirement – to formalise that knowledge so it can be bequeathed to the next generation. Businesses know first-hand how difficult it can be to pass on the baton.”
The government is also bringing in legislation that takes account of the shifting demographic. The most important to date is the abolition of the default retirement age, which means that from October this year, workers can no longer be forced to retire when they reach their 65th birthday.
Proposals to bring in new rules on flexible working, currently under public consultation, could also prove important. “Older workers are popular with employers because they are often prepared to work part-time,” says Moscovici. “The company can benefit from their wisdom and expertise without it being too expensive.
“My advice to older workers is: decide what role you want to go after in the future, and at what point you can make ends meet. Think about whether you want to keep a full-time job with more money but also more stress, or whether you want to go into portfolio mode, perhaps taking on a consultancy for some days each month, or perhaps starting your own business. The options really are endless.”
Which, in the current economic climate, is rather welcome news.
Further reading: WW Strategies
Government Modern Workplaces Consultation