Older Job Seekers and SMEs by Chris Ball, Specialist Adviser of the Ageing Workforce for Shaw Trust

11 February 2016

Across Europe, population ageing has been moving up the policy agenda. While the priority given to youth may have delayed somewhat activation of the full potential of older workers, the latter remain a priority in the EU’s 2020 Growth Strategy as well as being important for London’s economy.

Some parts of the UK are already taking the message on board. Last year I spoke to a meeting arranged by the Humber LEP, on the economic potential offered by older workers. The connection was being made between a chronic skills gap and the burgeoning potential of the older workforce to fill them, if only the right policies could be supported.

I talked about the growth of the “silver economy” for products and services geared to meet the consumer needs of the expanding older generation cohorts. I cited examples from France, where a gradual skewing of “grey” population age ranges, has fuelled a growth of markets in products and services. All this had been warmly embraced by SMEs, further stimulated by innovation and enlightened Regional Government.

Back in Yorkshire,  as Mike Parker, Chair of the Humber LEP Employment and Skills Board put it, “50+ residents are a vital resource for employers; these people are often those with higher level skills, experience and confidence who are a significant part of the solution to current and future skills gaps.”

I am sure the same could be said of London, even though the policy focus on youth has been particularly strong over the years.

Targeted support for older job seekers, it must be said, has not generally been available over the past decade, other than through European Social Fund projects. That said, many SMEs are led by older people who understand their products and markets very well. But we have been slower than our French cousins to celebrate the potential of “silver entrepreneurs.”

One reason may be that official figures traditionally understate the extent of the problem of “unemployment” among older people. Economic inactivity or “hidden unemployment” is a bigger issue, in reality.

For example, in London, 22.3 per cent of people in the 16 -64 age range are now classed as “economically inactive,” compared with only 6.2 per cent of Londoners officially numbered as “unemployed”. Moreover, economic inactivity is spread unevenly among the age cohorts, with 27.4 per cent of all in the 50-64 age range being so described.

Many “economically inactive” people would in fact be willing to work providing the right sort of jobs were available. Given that many have valuable skills currently going to waste, this represents a challenge to employers and businesses to make use of them.

It means finding jobs which take into account physical and other limitations and can accommodate a medical condition or a need to support a family member. Having the opportunity to try a job in a “Work Trial” can also make a difference.

The new ESF Operating Programme will provide new openings for such ideas. Great, new projects supporting the hundreds of thousands of people classified as “older,” who would really like to get out of their traps of economic inactivity, are exactly what the country needs in cities where the three and a quarter million people between 50 and 64 are economically inactive.

We really need to think more creatively about how we get the best out of older workers, “Turning Silver Workers into Golden Assets”, as one recent paper puts it.

TAEN’s national “Technical Assistance” project, in the ESF 2007-2013 programme, brought us face to face with many of these issues, as well with interesting solutions. It will be important to build on what we have already achieved and develop more ambitious and effective ideas to make a real difference.


Chris Ball is Specialist Adviser of the Ageing Workforce for Shaw Trust

From 2007 to 2015 he was Chief Executive of TAEN – The Age and Employment Network, now part of Shaw Trust.

Contact: Chris.Ball@Shaw-Trust.org.uk