Winter is coming and my twitter feed is full of stories about the problems, and the burden, of older age. Positive stories of the over 50s, never high in the headlines, have shrunk further from view. This is a dangerous and disempowering narrative. Yes, winter is coming – beware the over 50 victim narrative!
Most people have health issues in the winter months, be it man flu or seasonal affective disorder. The over 50s do not become instantly, and uniquely, burdensome victims with the changing of the clocks.
The seasonal shift
It is perhaps understandable that fears of the impact of winter cold on the health and well-being of older people drive the ‘older people’ narrative. ‘Bed-blocking’ is a big problem for the NHS – although it would be better to consider the people rather than the beds. But the narrative seems to have switched more generally to one focusing on inevitable decline in older age, with burden and victimhood stereotypes to the fore.
These are recognisably big topics, of national and international importance. Vulnerability leaves people open to exploitation. Loneliness is devastating and debilitating. The impact of dementia is immense – on individuals and their families as well as the public purse. It is vital we learn more about physical and mental decline in older age. But is also vital that we continue to recognise the positive stories – and not just plucky stereotypes of 80 year old sky-divers.
This is particularly the case for the 50 to retirement generation. The narrative of decline relates primarily to the older and oldest old. For the 50 to retirement generation – included in ‘older people’ by defining them as everyone over 50 – life is still very much to be lived, and the real image and real issues are rather different.
So what are the positive stories of the 50 to retirement generation?
The 50 to retirement generation is a working generation
Contrary to associations with early retirement, employment is the norm for the over 50s. 7 in 10 of the 50-64 year old population are at work – 8.8 million of them. Another 1.1 million working over 65s bring the 50 plus workforce to 9.9million – nearly a third of the 31 million employed in the UK today.
Recent growth in over 50s employment has exceeded rates in the general working population. Only one tenth of people aged 50-64 say they are retired and only 2 in every hundred are unemployed.
The majority of non-working 50-64 year olds are ‘economically inactive’ – not in work and but not actively looking for work. While including those who have taken early retirement, the largest number have stopped working either for health reasons or because they cannot balance a job with caring responsibilities. One fifth would like to work if they could find a suitable job (more here).
The 50 to retirement generation are proving that they want to extend their working lives. A projected shortfall of school leavers to fill future vacancies make older workers a valuable and much-needed resource. But to keep up supply, and encourage more of the ‘economically inactive’ over 50s to re-join the workforce, they need the right sort of work – good quality, flexible and well-designed (more here).
The 50 to retirement generation is a productive generation
Again, contrary to the stereotype, the 50 to retirement generation is highly productive. A significant body of research documents this (see here). A recent German study suggests that productivity in the workplace peaks in our mid 50s, and high productivity may continue up to 60 and beyond (full paper here). Employees in their 50s and above are not less productive than younger colleagues. Not employing workers after 50 sacrifices productive potential for both businesses and the UK economy.
Cognitive ability is more complex, but even here there is a positive story for the 50 to retirement generation. The age at which age-related cognitive decline kicks in is increasing with increasing longevity (report here) and research suggests that extending working lives may improve cognition in older age too (report here). While raw speed and flexibility tend to peak at earlier ages, evidence suggests that high level reasoning peaks in our 50s (report here) making this age adept at understanding multiple perspectives, allowing for compromise and recognising the limits of understanding. As social reasoning also improves with age, people over 50 are well-suited to high level public and business roles focusing on decision-making, counselling and complex negotiation.
The 50 to retirement generation are good employees
While older workers have a good reputation for loyalty and accrued knowledge, younger workers are often perceived to be better workers. But new research is promoting the real value of the older worker.
A recent report has evidenced that the over 50s do indeed score higher than younger workers for occupation specific knowledge and skills, and also for customer understanding (see here). This contrasts with the finding of the same study that both managers, and the over 50s themselves, think that 50+ employees have a low level of potential to progress, potentially leaving talent undeveloped and untapped.
Perhaps surprising, the over 50s have been shown to be better with IT in the workplace than we think. Contrary to the almost universal assumption that millennials are the IT generation – ‘digital natives’ – the over 50s have been shown to be effective with IT and able to use computers to enhance productivity (research paper here).
Maybe the biggest surprise is that research has also found that older workers actually enjoy their work more than others, to the benefit of their employers. The over 50s have been found to be our most motivated employees, performing better than all other age groups (see here).
The 50 to retirement generation are successful entrepreneurs
Innovation and initiative may not be the most commonly ascribed skills of the 50 to retirement generation. But the success of the over 50s as entrepreneurs shows they have these skills aplenty, together with a lifetime of acquired knowledge and experience.
People aged 50-69 now account for 1.9 million of the UKs 4.8 million self-employed (report here). According to the Institute of Directors recent report ‘The Age of the Older Entrepreneur’, there are twice as many successful entrepreneurs aged over 50 as under 25 (report here).
Women and people in tech industries feature prominently in stories about older entrepreneurs, and self-employment is increasingly seen as an effective route to extending working lives, especially for those who struggle to find an employer. Employers should consider whether they are losing out on a high quality resource.
Strategies for the 50 to retirement generation can drive effective social change for all
Recent discussion on how best to encourage people to stay in work for longer has considered the importance of quality of work. People will stay in, or return to, good work. Flexibility is key here, to allow people to balance work and caring responsibilities, or to reduce their work and ramp down in their later careers, avoiding a cliff-edge retirement.
But good work is good for all generations. Building a new workplace where older workers actually want to work for longer will create better workplaces, with a better approach to the well-being of employees. Such approaches, if made available to all, must surely benefit all generations (see here).
Strategies available only to a particular demographic will embed concepts of otherness and inequality. Cross generational strategies build inter-generational awareness and cohesion (see here). This has been evidenced by the hugely positive response to the combining older people’s day-care centres with children’s nurseries. And the transitioning of the age-friendly city idea into #healthycities for all ages looks like being a winner too.
Keeping the image right
So next time you read a story about the problems of the over 50s accompanied by a picture of wrinkly hands, or any of the other established ageist stereotypes, remember the burden/victim narrative is a dangerous one. It disempowers older people, whatever age. And for the 50 to retirement generation, presents a wholly erroneous image. #nomorewrinklyhands!
Whatever the season, the 50 to retirement generation is merely half-way through life. Some may have spent many years at work and are ready for a change, either in active retirement or in an encore career. But many are still working and keen to extend their working lives. Most are just busy doing their thing, like everyone else. They are active, effective and able – ready to make a genuine and valuable contribution to economy and society. They can be powerful and should be empowered.