Fed up at 50

There is a midlife crisis in workplaces everywhere. There are millions of over 50s who are economically inactive and are unwilling to return to work because they are not understood or supported in the workplace. Are internal communicators unwittingly colluding with other organisational functions to create and promote workplace cultures which are toxic for the over 50s, because we don’t make the effort to properly understand them?

Earlier this week, UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was urging the over 50s to ‘get off the golf course’ and go back to the workplace to help save the UK economy from oblivion. There are apparently around 3.6 million 50–64 year olds who are economically inactive in the UK, with 300,000 of these leaving the workforce during and after the pandemic.

Hunt is the latest in a long line of current and ex UK Government Ministers to try and ‘bully’ mid-lifers who simply left the workforce or retired ‘early’ to go back to work. At least this time the nanny state nagging, and unfortunate reference to the golf course, was tempered with some vague incentives of midlife MOTs and tax breaks which would be on offer to those willing to abandon the fairways and return in their droves to offices and shop floors.

As usual, the government’s rhetoric and proposed solutions for a complex issue such as this are somewhat narrow and reductive. Not everyone in the over 50s age group wants to return to work and some are unable to do so at all due to chronic ill health or caring responsibilities. The government would do well to take a look at its own research into this complex societal and demographic problem to understand why so many mid-lifers are absent from the workforce, before making unfounded comments and assumptions about the apparently ‘voluntarily bone idle’ over 50s age group.

A problem of supply AND demand

In the wake of Hunt’s announcement this interesting article ‘Over-50s at work: You feel your usefulness has passed’ appeared on the BBC website. What this demonstrates is that this is not just a supply side problem. There are plenty of over 50s who don’t have a job and want one, and this article from The Centre for Ageing Better suggests at least 500,000 of this group would like to be in work but aren’t.

If anything, this is in fact a demand side problem and employers and recruiters need to mend their ways if significant numbers of people in their 50s and 60s are to return to the workplace. Rampant ageism, poor recruitment practices and employers’ unwillingness to offer flexible working arrangements are just some of the main reasons why the over 50s can’t get back into work, even if they want to.

I’ve written before about ageism in the PR and internal communications professions, including how poor and deliberate recruitment practices such as using certain words in job adverts and descriptions can deter the over 50s from applying for jobs in the first place. But, what about the over 50s who are already in work and are becoming more and more fed up with their workplace, colleagues and employers resulting in them thinking about, or actually, leaving?

Not supported at work

One of the reasons why the over 50s leave the workplace is that they say that they are ‘not supported at work’. As a member of the (well) over 50 age group myself, I get this and think that mid-lifers are one of the most misunderstood employee stakeholder groups in the current workforce resulting in poor internal communication and other organisational interventions that effectively drive exclusion.

We hear lots about the workplace ‘needs’ of millennials and Gen Z, but older workers seem to be an increasingly invisible group which can fuel ageism, and yes, discrimination. Anecdotally, some over 50s also cite workplace wokeism, and the perceived performative communication activities which are allied to this, as a particular bugbear.

What concerns me is the possibility that internal communicators are unwittingly colluding with other organisational functions to create and promote workplace cultures which are toxic for the over 50s, because we don’t make the effort to properly understand them? Are we contributing to the forces which are driving this economically important group towards the exits?

The appearance of the BBC article mentioned above, reminded me of another I read on the subject last Autumn, this one about another government minister commenting on the over-50s issue. The reason I made the mental link were the similarities in the reader comments on both of these articles. There are literally hundreds of them and some make for rather disturbing  reading.

Despite the visceral nature of some of these comments, there are some clues and insights here for internal communicators, and other groups inside organisations, about how not to hack off older workers and keep them in the workplace.

Briefly, here are a few I picked out together with some thoughts on their possible implications for internal communicators everywhere.    

Communicating about Diversity, Equality and Inclusion

“White, male, over 50…about the most discriminated and marginalised group in the world.”

Now, I know this one will raise a few hackles, but let’s take it at face value. What this comment highlights is that race, sex AND age are all protected characteristics.

If you have a DEI communications strategy or plan in your organisation, does it sufficiently cover age as a characteristic and issue, as well as everything else.

If not, why not?

Communicating about initiatives and causes

“Over-50s have an immune reaction to the wokery that now permeates most workplaces”

Again, you might have a reaction to this quote, but I think there are a couple of things here that are worth considering.

If you do any kind of research with employees in you organisation (surveys or otherwise) is that research methodology sensitive enough to reveal the differences in attitudes and beliefs of particular groups, including age groups?

One of the things I learnt very early on in my communications career is that ‘great communication is founded in great insight’. In other words, if you want your communications about anything to resound with employees and have the right impact, you really need to find out how that communication will be received and perceived before you do it. If you don’t know, find out.

The other thing that this comment highlights is the importance of having clear objectives and solid reasons for communicating about anything. If communication objectives are unclear or absent from any kind of communication activity, it runs the risk of being seen as superficial, unnecessary and performative. In other words ‘woke’.

I’m particularly thinking here of all those annual ‘awareness’ days. Really consider ‘why’ you are communicating about these issues, for example, what is their relevance to your organisation and the people who work in it? If there is a link, make that clear to employees in the communication.

If there isn’t a good reason to communicate about it internally then don’t, and push back on people who think you should.

Line manager communication

“People don`t know how to talk to older people”

This sort of comment crops up frequently in the context of managers.

Internal communicators have historically found line manager communication to be a difficult nut to crack to help line managers get it right. I think that’s because we have tried to grapple with the issue on our own, and also gone about it in the wrong way.

This recent research report from CIPR Inside, provides some interesting insights into the issue and how internal communicators can collaborate with others (such as Human Resources and Organisational Development) to support managers with their communication responsibilities.  

A parting thought

Clearly getting the over 50s willingly back into work and keeping them there is a complex issue and internal communicators on their own are not going to solve it. Many of the comments also relate to financial, economic, stress related, and skills and training issues which are way beyond our remit.

However, internal communication and organisational culture are intimate bedfellows, so we do have a part to play in helping to resolve this important problem if we have the will to do so.

With that in mind, a parting thought. If you are currently under 50 and don’t think that this IS an important issue…..you will…one day.


Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

2 thoughts on “Fed up at 50

  1. I’ve always felt there was something infantilising about workplaces (writes a grumpy old man). Take the awkward HR-inspired cake on birthdays. We make a fuss of children’s birthdays in our society, but adults? I imagine it would come as a cruel reminder to anyone over 35 (let alone 50) that they don’t fit.


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