Graham Leather, a 57-year-old freelance consultant, saw most of his work dry up when the first national lockdown hit © Jon Super/FT

The Covid-19 crisis has forced thousands of young people to move back in with parents as their jobs evaporated, courses went online or city flats lost appeal.

Graham Leather, a freelance consultant based in Lancashire, has found himself in a similar position at the age of 57. He moved in with his father, who has dementia, in 2016, expecting it to be a six-month interlude while his divorce went through. Four years on, he had finally sold the house he shared with his ex-wife when the first national lockdown hit and his work dried up almost instantly. Turning to cycling for an outlet, he was testing himself against training app Strava when a cardiac event struck — leading to triple bypass surgery and, to add insult to injury, a bout of Covid, picked up in hospital.

“Here I am, living with my dad,” he says ruefully. Although the house sale means that money is not an immediate issue, the lack of occupation is gnawing at him. “I’m getting older and poorer . . . I’ve got a degree in engineering, and an MBA. I have lots of transferable skills. I want to do something that has some value . . . something to keep me going and make me feel useful.”

So far, with help from Rest Less, the online community for the over-50s, he has applied to supermarkets Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, to work as an NHS porter and a Christmas postman, as well as for consulting roles — all without success.

Over-50s hit hard

His experience is not unusual. The biggest rise in unemployment since the onset of the pandemic has been among the young. But older workers are also disproportionately likely to have been furloughed or made redundant, and many have left the labour market. Evidence from previous recessions suggests they will struggle the most to find a new job even as the economy recovers.

“Even pre-Covid, the re-employment rate was far lower for the over-50s than for any other group,” says Emily Andrews, senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better.

Bar chart of Re-employment rates in the UK by age, three quarters to September 2019 (%) showing Over-50s are struggling to find employment after redundancy

The charity’s analysis shows that only a third of UK workers over 50 who were made redundant in 2019 had found work three months later, half the proportion of those aged between 25 and 34; while the over-50s were twice as likely as 18- to 24-year-olds to be unemployed long term. The big concern, Ms Andrews says, is that those who fall out of work will never get back in.

This matters even more than in the past, because more people either want or need to work for longer, with many starting off in a precarious financial position.

Almost a third of the UK’s workforce is aged over 50, reflecting an ageing population and a steady rise over two decades in the employment rate of older workers — women especially. Almost three-quarters of people aged 50-64 were in work in 2020, compared with just 56 per cent in 1984, according to official statistics.

Bar chart of Unemployed people without work for more than a year, 2020 (%) showing Over 50s are more likely to be long term unemployed in the UK

Yet less than half of men and less than a third of women are still employed when they reach the age of 65 — still a year short of qualifying for the state pension. People in their 50s and 60s are also disproportionately likely to work part time, or to be self-employed on low earnings, making it harder to build pension savings.

“As I have not paid in enough years’ National Insurance to qualify for a full state pension, I must keep working,” said Martin Webster, who made a precarious living as a freelance events manager until Covid-19 brought the industry to a grinding halt. Since March, he has worked on and off as a delivery driver. But at 64, he sees little way back into his old occupation, “partly because the industry will shrink . . . and partly as I will be less able to meet the physical demands”, he says.

Dwindling retirement funds

The pandemic has made existing financial strains more acute. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that one in eight workers over 50 have changed their retirement plans as a result.

Some may be choosing to work for longer, having escaped the need for a gruelling commute.

Line chart of Average age of exiting from the labour market, 1950 to 2020, UK showing People are working for longer

“Working from home has made the prospect of working longer a lot easier . . . For me it is not really a question of the Covid pandemic impacting retirement finances, more that a high regular salary gives some insulation from the economic shocks and is quite a lot to give up for something I quite like doing most of the time,” one reader commented on the FT’s website.

Others need to work for longer to rebuild savings or avoid losses in the value of defined contribution pensions.

For those who have been forced by redundancy to retire earlier than planned, there is a risk they will find themselves poorer at the end of their life. “A lot of older people are a long way off retirement and these might have been really crucial years for them. Losing their job at this stage might have really big consequences,” says Rowena Crawford, associate director at the IFS.

There are obstacles to job-hunting in the later stages of working life — health issues; a lack of access to retraining; and outright ageism. “I am no longer bothering to include all my experience in a CV as it makes me harder to ‘carbon date’ and I appear younger than I am,” another FT reader commented.

“You reach a certain point and age-wise you reach the back of the queue for jobs . . . No one will say that but I think it’s a reality everyone has to face,” said Jo-Anne Hale, a personal trainer living in Gloucestershire, who ran exercise classes for elderly people until the virus shut her business down.

Ms Hale could not claim state support for the self-employed because most of her income came from a civil service medical pension. Like many older homeowners, she did not qualify for universal credit. A longstanding injury makes desk jobs impossible. Instead, she is living off dwindling savings, and shifts as a care worker.

“Being 59, I’m getting close to the watershed to retrain,” she says. “I was really stuck thinking what can I do. This was my nearest fit.”

Yet there is a gap in government policy when it comes to helping older people back into employment, or helping them retrain.

A policy gap

The £2bn Kickstart scheme, launched this autumn, subsidises work placements for 16- to 24-year-olds. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a further £2.9bn of funding for Restart, a programme that will support adults who fall into long-term unemployment. But this initiative is modelled on the Work Programme that ran after the 2008 recession, under which large private providers were paid by results and the over-50s emerged with the worst outcomes.

Those who were already in long-term unemployment — perhaps due to disability or mental health problems — and who find themselves elbowed to the back of the queue by the newly unemployed are likely to struggle most.

“If you’ve been out of work for a long time, you can’t just have a lick of paint and brush up your CV and off you go,” says Tracy Fishwick, managing director of Transform Lives, a social enterprise based in Liverpool that offers unemployment support.

“We need to see a very explicit offer for the over-50s . . . and a recognition that someone over 50 or 60 has very different needs,” Ms Andrews says.

“This offer would put out a really clear message to employers, to employment support providers, but also to people themselves who are in this age group — you are as entitled to support as a young person . . . you have many years left to give.”

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