Over-50s more likely to face long-term unemployment, data shows

Experts call for ‘concerted effort’ from employers and government in combatting age discrimination at work

Workers aged between 50 and 64 are more likely than any other age group to face long-term unemployment, according to an analysis of labour market data that suggests there are multiple barriers to older workers re-entering the workforce. 

Between May and July 2019, those searching for work aged 50-64 were 33 per cent more likely than under 50s to be unemployed for longer than two years. 

While the over-50s had the lowest short-term unemployment rate, the proportion of older workers who had been job seeking for more than two years was the highest of any age group. 

More than a third (37 per cent) of the 171,000 people facing unemployment for more than two years were over 50, while older workers made up just a fifth (21 per cent) of those who were unemployed in the shorter term.

Stuart Lewis, founder of over-50s jobs board Rest Less, which conducted the analysis, said the figures highlighted a problem with “overt age discrimination in the workplace”. He said that without sufficient support, “we risk the creation of a ‘forgotten generation’ who can’t find work and simply stop looking – withdrawing from the labour market and often suffering from loneliness and isolation as a result”.

Lewis added that the figures, obtained from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, did not take into account the many older workers who had given up looking for work after an unsuccessful search and therefore weren’t included in employment numbers. 

Commenting on the findings, Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “Knowledge, talent and ambition don’t disappear just because people reach a certain age, so it is very disappointing that older workers face ageist barriers in the workplace. 

“We need a concerted effort from government and employers to help the UK’s line managers move beyond basing employment decisions on outdated stereotypes and to consign ageism to the history books where it belongs.” 

However, Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, said that while there were still long-standing problems for older people looking for work, there had also been a “phenomenal increase” in the employment levels of older workers in recent years. “We're experiencing a jobs boom and that has disproportionately benefited older workers,” he said. 

“Older workers will increasingly be an important part of the workforce. I think people tend to think of the ageing workforce as a future trend to look out for, but it's not – it's been growing for 30 years.”

He added that employers needed to be open-minded when it came to older workers, and not overlook them for training opportunities. “There's a perception that [older workers] won't want training or need training, but if we're looking at people aged 50, realistically many of them could be retiring at 65 or 68, so that's 15 years’ time. There's a lot of years left, and it's definitely still worth investing in their development.”

Data analysis released earlier this year by Rest Less showed older workers were the least likely to have taken part in workplace training. Just over a fifth (23 per cent) of 55 to 65-year-olds took part in any workplace training between 2004 and 2017, compared with a third (33 per cent) of 16 to 24-year-olds, who were the most likely to participate in training. 

Rebecca Ireland, employment partner at gunnercooke, said even HR professionals “feel there is overt age discrimination going on at 50”.

She said: “Perhaps employers think that potential employees with many years’ experience might be bored at a lower managerial level, but they shouldn’t make assumptions. They need to be careful that unconscious bias is not at play.” 

Ireland added that employers should look at the generational mix within their business, and make sure they read guidance provided by Acas.

Emily Andrews, senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, added that employers needed to make workplaces more age-friendly and tackle discrimination in the recruitment process. “Employers can ensure they are hiring age-positively by using multiple channels to advertise vacancies rather than just online, using age-neutral language and images in job adverts, and having ‘blind’ application processes to minimise age bias in recruitment,” she said.