17/01/2018 11:28 GMT | Updated 17/01/2018 11:28 GMT

Investment In Skills Needed To Respond To Automation And ‘Unemployment Trap’ Of Over 50’s

Youth unemployment has been top of the news agenda for over a decade. Concern has grown in recent years about a disenfranchised youth, a mountain of student debt and a lack of opportunity. But whilst the focus has been on the young, another group of people have been left behind – the over 50’s.

According to a new report, a third of 50-64 year olds in the UK are not in work. The impact of automation on white collar jobs is one factor. Machines have marched on jobs in factories and embedded themselves across industries flexing skills their human counterparts can’t compete with.

27% are recorded as ‘economically inactive’ – this means they are not engaged in the labour market in any way – which is more than twice the rate of those aged 35-49 (13%). And around one million of the over 50s left employment involuntarily due to issues such as ill health, caring responsibilities or redundancy.

It’s a depressing picture. A generation of people who have survived at least two recessions and have years of experience behind them, left out in the cold. And it is forecast to get worse without some urgent action. The state pension age is rising and people in their 50’s and 60’s need to generate income or they face increasing poverty and hardship in later life.

We need to talk about skills for our experienced workforce. In fact, we need to talk about skills for our entire population.

Coping with unemployment is difficult for everyone. But for the over 50’s it is arguably harder. Those who find themselves unemployed in their fifties talk about being ‘left behind’, unable to keep pace with technology and offer something they believe only younger people can offer. There is a perceived, and in some cases actual, age bias in force, such as recruitment processes favouring younger candidates, or older candidates being passed over for training opportunities.

Ageism is real and it is rearing its ugly head in workplaces up and down the country.

Of all the age groups, it seems to me that the over 50’s are the most disconnected from education, with many leaving school or university decades previously. Over the years many have been failed by employers who haven’t invested in skills, innovation and training and admittedly, many have not invested in personal and professional development – building on their knowledge and experience and adapting to changing times.

It’s time to recognise that the university of life is just not enough.

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room – the issue that does come with age for some people that we do need to address. Many workers in their 50’s have relatives to care for – older and younger. Some have poorer health and long-term conditions. Traditionally, employment has never designed for flexibility and the over 50’s have never really seen it or experienced it. Many have not even asked for it.

So, what’s the answer? Poor health and caring responsibilities are some of the most common barriers experienced by workers aged over 50, so it is important that our health and benefits systems are more joined up and focused on helping those over 50 stay in work, or get back into employment.

As a society, we also need to accept that learning doesn’t end when we leave school or university and take up a job. Every professional must be in the pursuit of lifelong learning. We need a national re-training scheme and a programme of lifelong learning to open up the opportunities to upskill throughout a career.

Employers are also key. We need bosses to offer flexible job opportunities and lead the way by taking a positive approach to recruiting older workers. Companies should focus on acquiring skills that the job markets of today (and tomorrow) demand, such as IT proficiency and basic technical qualifications. It isn’t just the millennials who are capable of coding.

There is of course a lot our Government can do to ‘facilitate’ a changing landscape for the over fifties, including increased flexibility in the benefits system, new or updated employment legislation and rethinking the design of services to reflect complex challenges that the over 50s face in returning to work.

The future of work is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Design has a crucial role to play and we want to help build an ambitious plan for UK design skills. Who knows, the next tech innovation could be designed by a 55-year-old ex-accountant. Why not?