Where have all the older workers gone and will they ever return?

Not so long ago I found myself at lunch in the middle of London where a well-known British businessman said something unexpected about the threat of rising inflation.

Any company that has a board member who has been a senior executive for 30 years is doing pretty well right now, he said.

Why? Because this director would already have had to deal with high inflation. “I was alive at the time,” added the man, who was in his 50s. “But I wasn’t running a business.”

I thought back to his comments last week as soaring energy and food prices pushed inflation rates to 30-year highs in the UK and 40-year highs in the US.

The benefits of experienced older workers, inside and outside the boardroom, have never seemed so obvious.

Yet these same people are in the throes of a drastic disappearing act, vanishing from their desks at a faster rate than their mid-career colleagues in workplaces around the world.

Nearly 70% of the 5 million people who left their jobs in the United States during the pandemic were over the age of 55, researchers said in November.

In the UK, the employment rate for people over 50 has fallen by twice that of people aged 25-49 in 2020.

This can be a welcome development for young workers struggling to navigate their way past a vast demographic wave of job-hogging baby boomers.

And there’s no doubt that many older leavers are happily retiring from a recession that, unlike the last big downturn in 2008-09, left them with more valuable homes and larger stock portfolios.

Yet, for both workers and employers, the picture is far from uniformly rosy.

The gray resignation amounts to the reversal of an important pre-Covid trend towards older workers.

In the United States, the percentage of workers aged 55 or older has increased from 13% in 2000 to 24% in 2019 and similar patterns have emerged elsewhere, which is precisely what many governments wanted.

They have raised the retirement age to address fears that aging populations will find it difficult to be supported by a declining share of young workers, fueling a rise in older staff, which is good news for employers in a country like the UK. Combined with other trends in migration and labor market deregulation, it made it relatively easy for them to hire the workers they needed.

And since many of these workers were aware of the ease with which they could be replaced, they accepted working hours and working conditions that suited them less than their organizations.

The pandemic has put the boot firmly on the other foot. In countless places this month, employers are facing severe labor shortages that have helped cancel airline flights, close restaurants and empty hotel rooms.

It would be a mistake to blame it all on gray nomads rushing to a happy beachside retreat. People over 50 have also suffered the full brunt of layoffs linked to the pandemic in many countries.

A third of those made redundant in Britain during the pandemic were aged 50 or over, according to Britain’s Center for Aging Better.

And laid-off over-50s were half as likely as younger workers to be rehired during the pandemic.

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Not all of them were old enough to qualify for a state pension. It was disastrous on an individual level. But it can also cause big problems for organizations that have grown accustomed to a pool of older, experienced workers and lack the capacity to train new employees quickly.

They say: “We have a skills drain,” says Nick Gallimore, director of innovation at Advanced, a British enterprise software group. He spends a lot of time talking to human resource managers and says the loss of seasoned staff can hit a company hard.

The answer, he says, is for companies to think more about how to attract and retain these workers.

A way to achieve this will not be new to any employer who has spent a minute listening to what staff want right now: a continuation of the autonomy many have tasted during the pandemic.

Employees of all ages want more freedom at work. For some older people, there may never have been a better time to do this.

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