We need to rethink retirement and give 50-plus employees more opportunity - Victoria Tomlinson

A director recently told me the last six months of his working life were some of the worst times he had ever had.

He wasn’t invited to new project meetings. Younger colleagues made vacuous comments such as “Ooh, lucky you. All those lie-ins and travelling”, not realising he had no one to travel with and was dreading endless empty days. He had never felt fitter or healthier, but what was that for?

The 100-year life should signify opportunity. But employers are failing to realise its potential. The current trend is to encourage employees to retire ever earlier and open up career progression for the younger generation. This is understandable, but cutting people off in their prime is not the way to do this.

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Generally, we need to rethink employment for the 50+ generation. And if we get this right, it could help to solve so much of the current skills crisis.

The Next-Up team, including Victoria Tomlinson (centre).The Next-Up team, including Victoria Tomlinson (centre).
The Next-Up team, including Victoria Tomlinson (centre).

So, what are the issues from an employer’s perspective? Despite its good intentions, age discrimination legislation has made it extremely hard to start conversations with employees about when they want to retire. Legally, employers cannot have a fixed retirement date. I have heard numerous stories of HR directors trying to approach retirement discussions with terrible results. One employee was openly talking about plans for her upcoming 60th birthday, and HR thought this was a good hook to start discussions about her future. At which point, the manager burst into tears and rushed out of the room.

Other responses to these discussions are aggression and sheer awkwardness. People feel as if they are being pushed out of the door after giving 20 or 30 years of their life to an organisation.

The other issue, of course, is employers are facing a skills crisis across all sectors, levels of seniority and disciplines.

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What we have discovered at Next-Up is that offering support to employers aged 50+ regarding their long-term futures is a great way to thank and reward employees for their contribution. Still, it also turns fear about the future into positivity. When we run workshops, anything up to three-quarters of the delegates are apprehensive and uncertain about their future. At the end of the workshop, up to 90% say they are excited about opportunities ahead. Once you have people with positive mindsets, you can have constructive conversations about their own personal development, even if retirement is ten years away, they can begin to prepare, and employers can discuss succession planning without seeming to write them off.

Another issue is that some employers and colleagues start talking about people aged 50+ as deadwood or ‘coasting’ to retirement, with what seem to be low expectations of their ability to learn, innovate and deliver demanding targets.

What we should be doing is investing in their skills and expecting more. Covid demonstrated that older generations are perfectly able to learn and use new technologies when they have to. This is about changing mindsets and expectations.

One area we are starting to develop with employers is encouraging employees to get involved with ESG initiatives pre-retirement. Every organisation these days has a wealth of initiatives, from net zero carbon emission targets to supporting women in senior roles, recruiting from disadvantaged communities and cyber and data security. Getting involved in areas like these means learning new skills, getting to know new people in the organisation and clients and the wider world and new energy, purposefulness and motivation. Employees can be re-energised and start learning skills and building contacts which will be helpful when they leave the organisation.

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An obvious immediate win for employers is to rethink how people ‘retire’. The NHS now offers nurses and others a wealth of contract options to keep working after official retirement, such as weekends or holidays only and other part-time options. This is a win for everyone. The unretired generation is happy to cover periods which tend to be difficult for employees with young families, such as school holidays or after 3.30 pm when they may have to collect children from school. The unretiree often want to work at these times and then take their holidays when it is cheaper, such as in school holidays.

Rethinking retirement is not just offering a continuation of existing jobs on new hours, but also offering and even encouraging employees to think about different positions entirely, such as working in a call centre or doing admin jobs for a few hours each week. We have come across many unretired people who say they no longer want the stress and responsibility of their formal career but are happy to work a few hours to get out of the house and mix with other people. One woman said, “I have had my career. Now I just do four hours of admin a day. I don’t think I am taking a job from a young person. It honestly isn’t very interesting work that I do. But it means I meet people and can save to see my son in Canada at Christmas.”

What we see in employers is that no one knows quite how to have sensitive discussions with employees. Running positive pre-retirement programmes demonstrating the wealth of opportunities for this generation is one way to turn around mindsets and make the most of the skills of 50+ employees.

Skills are an urgent issue, but part of the answer is within employers' grasp.

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- Victoria Tomlinson is founder and chief executive of Next-Up which runs workshops for partners in professional firms and has developed an online platform to help all employees coming up to retirement.

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