Work after 50 and the Goldilocks phenomenon – the search for ‘just right’ work

I bumped into an acquaintance today who told me that he has just stepped away from his highly senior, highly paid City job. His story made me think that, after 50, we can find work ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’, but struggle to find work which is ‘just right’ – a Goldilocks phenomenon.

Stories of work after 50

Just into his 50s, my acquaintance had found that what initially looked like a golden opportunity had rapidly turned sour – ultra-long hours, heavy travel needs, invasion of vacation time. Friends and colleagues cautioned that this stage in a career was the time to hunker down and provide the security needed for retirement and later life. But he saw the loss of work-life balance as too great and made the break. He is now developing a consultancy based on his sector expertise and, with one contract already lined up and more people queuing at the door, feels positive about the change.

Another 50-something friend is reflecting on the expanding nature of his job. His firm has run two redundancy programmes in the last 5 years, each one shedding up to 10% of staff in the target areas. Efficiency is the watchword, and he concedes that some areas might have been overstaffed at the outset. But the reality is that people now have more to do. My friend is enjoying the challenge of more responsibility. But he has little energy to devote to domestic and family responsibilities in the evenings and at weekends.

Compare these stories to my own – someone wanting to relaunch in later life having lost career traction after having kids. Following a career break and a return to flexible work, I found myself migrating to rewarding but somewhat precarious jobs, notably below the career high-point I reached in my 30s before starting a family. This was in part by choice. I recognised the difficulty in balancing full-on work with family commitments and had scaled back. But my kids are nearing the end of their school lives and I’m now ready to get back on board with my career. New Middle Age is my ‘returner programme’.

‘Just right’ work

What is ‘just right’ work for the over 50s? It looks like there is no single perfect job. Unsurprisingly different people want different things to reflect their different circumstances. And those circumstances still change even after 50 – such as for people facing the challenge of taking on caring for an older family member, responsibilities they lose again on the death of their loved one. Or those who would like to improve the work-life balance of their adult children by helping with the care of their grandchildren – grandchildren who will soon grow up and not need the intensive attention, and time, so important in their early years.

So to prevent ‘burn-out’ and support work-life balance, work needs to adapt to make sure it ‘works’ for the over 50s:

  • Most importantly it needs to be flexible – allowing people to step aside from, and move back into career trajectories which can provide for financial security and resilience in retirement.
  • Awareness of employee well-being needs to go beyond gimmicks and freebies.
  • We need good job design, continued training and career development across the life course.
  • Line managers need to be trained to ensure company policies are implemented throughout the firm.
  • For those who have left the workplace but would like to return – including the trend for ‘unretirement’ highlighted in recent research here we need secure routes back to work.
  • This should include appropriate training to get them back up to speed, either in-work such as via returner programmes, or via community or on-line re-entry courses.

A New Workplace

Altogether this package adds up to a new workplace, founded on strategies which deliver for the 50 to retirement generation (detail on the website here). But these are strategies which can also deliver for other generations. So they offer cross-generational equity and, importantly, have the potential to strengthen inter-generational awareness and consensus-building (more detail here).

Early exits

If people over 50 find work too difficult, they will ultimately leave the workplace altogether – principally by taking ‘early retirement’. There are currently 3.3 million 50-64 year olds classified as ‘economically inactive’, people not in work but not actively looking for work. A third of them say they are retired, despite not having reached State Pension Age. The rest are not working due to health issues, caring or other responsibilities (more here).

Such ‘early exits’ represent a loss of productive talent. They also run counter to the aim of current government policy to extend working lives – essential in our economically challenged times if we are to cope with the combination of a shrinking workforce and ageing population.

Uncertain Futures

Changes to State Pensions Age may push some people to work longer. But without career flexibility, together with effective career options which allow people to balance their work with personal responsibilities and well-being, many will still elect to leave work earlier than they might wish. The difficulties they will face in retirement, documented by recent research by the University of Kent (here) mean that this will be a generation facing ‘uncertain futures’.

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