The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, a youngster of 56, is concerned that there are about 300,000 fewer people in employment than pre-pandemic, and has urged us oldies to get back into the workplace. He declared last week that “Britain needs you”. However, at the same time, a survey of more than 1,000 UK managers in business and the public services found that only 42% of them were open to a large extent to hiring people aged 50 to 64.
To this I say, 64? That’s young. I was 69 when I took my current job as college president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University. And, if I may say so, I think I do it very well – not despite the fact that I am old, but in fact because of my age. I’ve got vast experience of managing organisations. I am older than nearly everyone I work with at Cambridge. I enjoy saying to all these awfully clever people: “Speaking with the wisdom of age …”
If you are fit, still have your marbles and have something to offer, then you should be welcomed into the workplace. The prejudice against older workers is an outrage. When I was head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, I commissioned a programme, Too Old to Work, exposing ageism in the workplace, narrated by the former BBC newsreader Moira Stuart. She had left her job as a BBC newsreader amid claims, denied by the BBC, that she was a victim of ageism. Our programme found that being older than 45 meant people were more likely to lose their job and fail to secure another position. If the government wants older people to go back to work, it needs to take action to change the outdated attitudes of employers.
The current retirement age is 66 and it has just been flagged that it will potentially rise to 68 within a few years. So this prejudice against older workers for the last 16 years of their working lives before pension eligibility, according to the CMI survey, and last 21 years of their lives, according to the programme I commissioned for Channel 4, condemns millions to the poverty of basic benefits. Many in this baby-boom generation of retirees are relatively rich. But final salary pensions barely exist now, so our children won’t be cruising.
The sad fact is, older people are already trying to return to work, driven by the cost of living crisis. Office for National Statistics data reported earlier this year that 116,000 people over 50 in the UK had either returned to work or were looking for work. Hey, young Jeremy, you didn’t need to urge older people to go back to work – the desperate state of the economy you oversee is driving them to do so. More than half the total increase was among men aged over 65, and many people were in fact coming out of retirement.
A significant percentage of those who left the workplace may be unwell, perhaps because of the effects of long Covid, or disabled. We also forget that millions of people work in hard physical industries. It’s not just that they are no longer wanted as brickies or scaffolders, it may be that those jobs have worn them out physically. When did you last see a brickie who was 65? Talk to GPs, as I have, about the physical state of manual workers by the age of 55 and you would be shocked by the descriptions of the physical toll.
Similarly, older women are often driven to give up work because of menopause-related medical problems. The last film I comissioned at Channel 4 was about the menopause. Someone said that “only old women will watch it”. Luckily there are lots of us. It has turned into a series, and perhaps one Hunt should watch. Women receive poor NHS treatment for the menopause; that is not disputed and it results in women giving up work. A Bupa survey found that almost 900,000 women had left the workplace because of the menopause. That is three times the figure leaving the workplace that worried young Jeremy so much that he did his Kitchener-style “Britain needs you!” slogan. If we could stop women leaving the workplace with good menopause policies, we wouldn’t have to urge them to return.
I was lucky. I kept my job into older age because of a remarkable intervention by the Queen. On 16 February 2022, Queen Elizabeth II, by order in council, agreed to change the statutes of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University, which meant I could remain in my role as president when I reached the age of 70. I like to think as a working woman of 95 who also declined to retire, she reached out the hand of friendship to another older female worker. Of course, I realise it was unlikely to have been the Queen herself who made the decision, but a good decision it was.
Sadly, she has gone now so royal intervention won’t solve the problem of the UK’s missing workers. That will be fixed only when the prejudices and barriers older workers face are overturned.
Dorothy Byrne is president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, and the former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4