Victoria Tomlinson is founder and chief executive of Next-Up, which runs workshops and has an online platform to help employee’s pre-retirement. The key is helping 50+ employees with ideas – what do people ‘do’ at this stage of life – and then building new skills and connections to make it all work. They do this with hundreds of video interviews with their peers, sharing insights and their tips. The aim is to find purpose and achieve the work/life balance everyone wants. Victoria was a director of EY, on the London leadership team and then ran an award-winning communications/digital business for 30+ years. A TEDx speaker and BBC Expert Woman, she was chair and is now board member of WILD Digital, increasing the diversity in technology, and was chair of an advisory board for University of Leeds and on the board of Northern Ballet. She hopes to be a role model showing that you can become a tech entrepreneur – or whatever you want – at the age of 67 and more!
The 50+ generation have suddenly become interesting to employers, government and policy think tanks. Just when the country has a skills crisis, thousands of people aged 50 to 64 have decided to leave work forever.
Here I want to look at why they are leaving, how to stop the outward flow – and how to attract them back.
I was 63 when I started this second business – relevant as you will see! At that stage I was meeting increasing numbers of the 50+ generation who had left corporate life (they didn’t see themselves as ‘retired’) and were completely lost. I realised there was a mental health issue here, a massive waste of skills and talent and a crisis that no-one was talking about.
And all this was a few years before the pandemic – which has accelerated things but was not the fundamental cause.
What I saw – and wider research confirmed – was that people had had enough of ‘work’ which felt increasingly pressured and meaningless. But they had not had enough of work in terms of using their skills and being useful and relevant. The trouble was they were struggling to find a way to use those skills.
In one piece of research, 75% of employees aged 50+ said their skills were not recognised or used.
Just stop and think about that for a minute. Three quarters of your experienced employees say their skills aren’t recognised or used. No wonder there is a productivity issue in this country. Other research says they won’t make a fuss and do anything about it because they think they will lose their job altogether. Numerous reports say they experience ageism; and growing numbers are frustrated at the inflexibility of their jobs. Many have caring responsibilities of both grandchildren and their own parents.
How do you stop this trend? First off, age needs to be included in your diversity focus – this will ensure you analyse data by age and understand the issues of this generation.
You will discover there has been almost no investment in their training – so it is no wonder their tech skills could be better – and that benefits are skewed towards younger members of the workforce. One HR director said they had a lot around childcare and even fertility treatment, but only ‘impotency and menopause support’ for the older generations.
The 50+ generation wants work flexibility as much as millennials. The current debate about how many days people should go into the office seems to focus on younger employees but there is real frustration about ‘presenteeism’ from this experienced group of employees.
As 50+ employees leave the workforce, they are saying they no longer need a salary to have enough money to live on. When you take money away as a motivator for work, you become much more demanding about the work you do?
And this means leadership and HR teams have to go through a mindset – the assumptions about money are threaded through how jobs are designed at work. It is inherent in the lockstep approach to incremental pay increases and how you reward work generally.
If money is not a motivator, what is? This generation wants their work to be purposeful, as much if not more than millennials do. They want flexibility – maybe to work on projects where they are really using their experience but are not bogged down in meetings and general admin. At this stage of life, many have had enough of managing people – there isn’t status in running large teams, just stress and hassle.
They want to feel valued – who doesn’t? – and they want to use all that experience that they have built up. I recently heard a teacher say, “I couldn’t face another 35-year old head teacher holding a well-meaning session on the importance of story-telling to engage young children. What do they think I have been doing all these years?”
This is a generation that tends not to complain, they just get on with it. So unless you make an effort to understand how this generation is feeling, you won’t know what is happening until they have left. Leaving you with an even bigger skills gap.
Last year I organised an event for former partners of professional firms to share their personal retirement experience with HR directors. At the end, one HR director said, “Thank you for sharing this so honestly. I am shocked – I had absolutely no idea how hard retirement is. I realise I have made many assumptions – in fact, I have not really thought about it much at all.”
The very word ‘retirement’ fills large numbers of people with dread – and this is the opportunity for employers.
We are just piloting an online platform to help all employees think about and plan for their retirement – not the financials, but the emotional impact and that great unanswered question, ‘what am I going to do?’. Just before Christmas we held an online information session for one corporate. 400 employees booked on to the call, but we were told they would not all turn up.
No, 750 employees joined the call! Clearly this is a topic exercising a lot of employee minds and is a way in to start designing work that works for this generation.
By discussing what they want for the long term, the employer can then help individuals to plan towards this – maybe working part-time and flexibly so they stay working for maybe two, five, ten years more than just leaving. Stone dead. It has to be easier to fill skills gaps with existing employees rather than recruiting from a very tight labour market?
If you make your workplace somewhere the 50+ generation wants to be, you could solve the skills gap and productivity issues in one go. Of all the challenges facing employers at the moment, this one may be the easiest to solve.