Older workers are now the fastest growing age group in the national labour market. The number of people working past retirement age has almost doubled in the last year and, by 2020, a predicted third of workers are expected to be over the age of 50. For employers, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity: older workers bring with them a vast array of skills and experience that employers can tap into, but they also have very different needs and priorities to their younger counterparts.

Many employers aren’t currently meeting these needs, a disconnect the government recognised earlier this month with the launch of its Fuller Working Lives initiative. The programme is designed to help employers encourage older workers, a ‘vast untapped talent’, to stay in work for longer and put a stop to people leaving the workforce involuntarily in their 50s and early 60s. But although this will provide guidance and a helpful framework for employers, HR departments will need to lead the charge within individual businesses.

So how can they do this?


Older workers are an incredibly valuable business asset. They have a lifetime of training and on-the-job experience under their belts, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to plug the skills gap in certain sectors. With so much on offer, employers must think carefully about how to attract these valuable workers.

Employee benefits play a key role when it comes to recruiting from this demographic group. Our research shows that almost two thirds of workers over the age of 55 say a full and comprehensive benefits package is important to them, yet many employers aren’t taking this into account – in fact, outdated benefits packages mean that older workers are now more likely to fall into financial difficulty than they were 30 years ago.

So what benefits should employers offer? Support in old age and ill health becomes increasingly important to us as we get older, and has a tangible impact on our decision to join a company. 66% of workers over the age of 55 say flexibility and support at work if they fall ill is important to them and 60% say the same of financial support through ill health – making these bigger factors than career progression (54%) or a company bonus (50%). Employers should offer benefits that reflect this – for example, elective health insurance to help older workers cover the cost of medical treatment, or Income Protection to provide a financial back-up plan for those who go on long-term sick leave.

Flexible working is also a valued benefit amongst this demographic as many older workers have caring commitments or simply prefer to work part-time as they start to approach retirement. Whilst the government has extended the right to request flexible working to all workers, employers looking to recruit from this group should review the options for flexible working within their organisations.


Recruiting older workers is only half the battle; employers also need to give careful consideration to how they retain them.

Feeling valued and cared for has a very real impact on an older worker’s likelihood of staying with a company. For example, our research has found that 78% of workers aged over 55 feel that recognition for their achievements is very important, 75% said the same of feeling empowered at work, and 70% said this of having a good relationship with their line manager. By creating a caring and supportive environment that provides these, employers can make a real difference to company loyalty.

But retention is not just about loyalty, it’s also about helping older workers to stay in the workplace in light of an increased likelihood of ill health. Early intervention is key and employers can introduce various measures, from training line managers to spot potential problems early to offering an Employee Assistance Programme. If a member of staff does have to take time off work due to ill health, employers should provide tailored support to help them return when they are ready, whether that’s by providing access to Occupational Health or by being flexible and making adjustments to their working role and hours. In both cases, a culture of openness and ongoing communication between staff and line managers is crucial.

Taking action

Employers have much to lose if HR strategies don’t reflect the needs of the older worker. As much as a third (32%) of workers aged 55+ say they would consider leaving their job if they did not feel cared for by their employer and with this demographic continuing to grow, employers simply cannot afford to ignore the issue. The government’s Fuller Working Lives programme serves as a timely reminder of the importance of later life workers and the way we have to go to accommodate them in our workplaces.

By Linda Smith, HR Director, Unum