For many women aged over 50 staying in work long enough to receive a decent standard of living in retirement can be challenging.

For others it can be impossible.

The Pensions Policy Institute found that 50% of older workers will have to work for at least six years past their State Pension age in order to maintain their existing standard of living – in other words, it isn’t going to happen.  The gender pay gap may well exacerbate this for women.

Perhaps the biggest problem comes for those who find themselves unemployed. Once out of work, a typical older worker aged over 50 has a less than 40% chance of being back in work within a year, and is likely to suffer a longer spell of unemployment than any other age group.

Barriers to returning to work occur for many reasons, but commonly include ageism, a lack of IT skills and inadequate back-to-work support.

Flexibility is key

For women in particular, however, there are often other barriers which are perhaps more of a hindrance than for men.  One hugely important issue here is caring, both in terms of workplace support and flexible working.

As women aged over 50 are more likely than men to have caring responsibilities, either for parents, children or grandchildren, access to flexible working is very important.

This is not to stereotype flexible working as being something for women only – in fact more men aged 50+ work flexibly than do women – but the lack of availability in certain situations may have a particularly significant impact on women.

Last year Age UK published the report ‘A means to many ends’ which looked at older workers’ experiences of flexible working. It found that many are struggling to access the type of flexibility that meets their needs, and that this was a particular problem for carers.

Many carers leave the workplace altogether because they cannot balance their commitments with work.

We estimate that carers leaving work result in a total cost to the UK economy of £5.3bn and the Exchequer loses out on £1bn a year through lost taxes, not to mention the additional benefits paid out such as carer’s allowance – surely it’s in everyone’s interest to keep more people in work?

Many employers recognise the business case for retaining carers – there are some very good examples – but too many still fail to allow for people to balance their work and personal lives.

The extension of the Right to Request flexible working to all employees, included in the Children and Families Bill currently before Parliament, is welcome and will hopefully contribute towards greater acceptance of flexible working as the norm.


Among people working past State Pension age, two-thirds of women work in low-skilled occupations compared to just one-third of men.  For a variety of reasons, many 50+ women returning to employment take work which may not be a full reflection of their skills and experiences.

This is a huge waste of human capital. It also has consequences for flexible working take-up, as people in lower skilled occupations are less likely to work flexibly than their managerial counterparts.

It’s important to ensure that we make full use of people’s skills across all occupations, and making this work for 50+ women would be a good place to start.

How can things be improved?

Tackling ageism and encouraging attitudinal change among managers in the longer term are certainly important for improving labour market outcomes for all older workers. In the more immediate future there are still things that can help more people back into sustainable work.

Improving back-to-work support and helping carers remain in active employment, along with ensuring that if people do fall out of the labour market they can access the training and appropriate jobs to get back in.

Improving the Government’s flagship employment project, the Work Programme, is important too. Women have fared worse under than men across all age groups barring the under 25s, suggesting that urgent reform is needed to this too.

Incentivising employers  to take on more long-term unemployed older jobseekers – for example measures mimicking the Youth Contract such as wage incentives could be introduced.

Not to mention a drive to persuade more employers to adopt flexible working policies.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom – employment rates have held up surprisingly well despite the economic situation and there is some evidence of employers attitudes’ changing for the better. But with the State Pension age already increasing, action needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Posted on March 12th, 2013 by Christopher Brooks filed under: Blog, Work

2 Responses to The challenges facing 50+ women in work

  1. Comment made by Angela Thorogood on Mar 15th 2013 at 10:33 am:

    I read this with great interest.

  2. Comment made by admin on Mar 15th 2013 at 10:44 am:

    Thank you Angela! Let us know if you’d like to contribute to the blog or if you have any suggestions for other articles you’d like to see in the future – get in touch here.