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An independent career health check at 45 might seem radical but could be a key component for how to get more people over age 50 staying or returning to work, argues Anita Hoffmann.

Longer healthier lives will need financing

The adult population, in the UK, is forecast to be in majority over age 50 by 2030. At 50 we can likely look forward to 20-30 healthy active years before becoming ‘elderly’.

Longevity means that pensions need to last longer and we will likely need to or want to work longer as it also has personal, social and wellbeing benefits.

We need our older workers

It is estimated that the UK will have 5-6.5 million unfilled vacancies within a decade due to worker retirement and smaller cohorts of young people. 

Some sectors are particularly at risk of losing older workers to early retirement. E.g. two separate studies concluded that 80% of senior doctors and 40% of nurses in the NHS have considered early retirement due to stress.

Many of us end up exiting, often irreversibly, from mainstream employment in our 50s, due to a combination of factors; from excessive stress, lack of promotion, redundancy, caring duties to health issues.

This equation is clearly not computing – we are wasting valuable experience and resources.

What is needed to stay in work post age 50?

A number of studies like ‘Good Work’ by the RSA, ‘Fuller Working Lives’ by the UK Department for Work and Pensions and ‘The Missing Million I and II’ by BITC have discussed this issue and a major project between government and employers via BITC is under way to get 1 million workers over 50s back to work.

The studies have two recommendations in common:

  • Skills development - to keep relevant in the job market.
  • Flexible working arrangements - the decision to leave is often precipitated by employers having no provision for flexible work schedules or job-sharing.

From my experience I would argue that there is a third vital category: 

  • Career development skills - how to continuously create new options for ourselves.

Let us examine these one at a time: 

Flexible Working

Although the right to ask for flexible working is enshrined in UK law, few people ask for flexible working as this can be seen as ‘not fully being committed’ and risking a subsequent lack of career progression, similar to flex-working mother’s experience. The TimeWise Power 50 Awards is slowly helping to change this through celebrating high-profile leaders working part time.

In consulting firms, management and HR have no problem managing employees working part-time on different projects, in different locations who have an obligation to prove they spend a certain percentage of their time in personal skill development so why is it that other industries find flex-work such an insurmountable issue?

Skills development

We need to take on board the idea of life-long learning - and take personal responsibility for making it happen if our employers don’t and use some of our leisure time for “‘re-creation rather than ‘recreation’” as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott say in ‘The 100-year life’.

Singapore, ahead of the UK in the ‘age-stakes’, have a progressive strategy around citizen’s long-term skills development at every age including the SkillsFuture Credit, offering direct subsidies of S$500 to all Singapore citizens over the age of 25 for pre-approved courses and significantly higher subsidies for professional courses.

Career development skills - always be in ‘Beta testing mode’

Most organisations ‘career development’ processes are in effect ‘promotion readiness processes’ - how to get promoted in your particular organisation.

A few enlightened organisations are starting to teach their employees real career development skills. The Tech industries are at the forefront together with the Strategy consulting houses like McKinsey and Bain.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, says that ‘we should look at our careers as a ‘start-up business’ and keep them in con­tinuous ‘beta-testing’: “Keeping your career in permanent beta forces you to acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve”.

This means that we need to continuously develop ourselves for our current work and explore what we could be doing if we were not doing what we are doing today, i.e. developing our careers.

It is particularly intriguing that Singapore offers programmes to citizens honing the personal and interpersonal skills to be curious, open-minded, and confident in the face of new learning opportunities - the precise skills needed for developing new career options!

Career development ‘health-checks’ for all at 45?

In NIACE’s 2015 evaluation report for the Mid Life Career Review (MLCR) project - piloting the effect of career reviews with 3000 UK workers aged 45-65 with the National Careers Service, Job Centre Plus and a range of partners - they found the uptake was the highest amongst the unemployed or workers facing redundancy, whilst fulltime employed people were not particularly keen. They were therefore not sure if or how such career reviews could be used widely in UK organisations.

During the past decade several European projects around mid-life career reviews (MCLR’s) have been performed in the UK, Belgium (Vlanders) and France (where mid-career reviews by your employer are now enshrined in law).

The most effective model to enrol employed workers seems to be independent MCLR’s as the employer led reviews can be seen more as ‘performance appraisals’.

The major benefit for participants from the MCLR pilots was increased self-confidence; resulting in re-skilling, applying for jobs or changing careers.

I can confirm the importance of this from my personal experience (two career changes) and the thousands of career-journeys I have witnessed as a senior executive search consultant and coach.

When we know we have options we become less worried about the future which is an important insight considering the rapid changes in the world of work.

Maybe we could - like the age 55 NHS preventive health check – have a preventive career health health-check for everyone at age 45, when it is easier to do some serious readjustments to our career trajectories?

Once everyone does career reviews, no one will feel negatively singled out and with 20-30 healthy years to look forward to at age 50, we could all do with the chance to create a rewarding second career!

Anita Hoffmann, FRSA, is the author of ‘Purpose & Impact: How executives are Creating Meaningful Second Careers’ (Routledge). She is a senior executive search and leadership development consultant specialising in mid/later career transitions and a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University’s School of Management’s Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

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