By Claire West

People aged 50 or above who lose their jobs are more likely to remain out of work for longer periods of time than all other age groups. Research produced by leading think tank Policy Exchange also found that older workers are still being discriminated against on the grounds of their age.

The report — Too Much to Lose: Understanding and Supporting Britain’s Older Workers — found that there are currently 8.3 million people aged between 50 and 65 in employment. Making up over a quarter of the entire UK workforce, the valuable contribution that older workers make is often ignored.

The research found that while the number of people working past the age of 50 has significantly increased over the past two decades, older workers who lose their jobs find it a lot more difficult to get back into work than other age groups. At the end of 2011, 189,000 over-50s who were unemployed (43%) had been out of work for a year or more. This compared to 26% of 18-24 unemployed year olds and 35% of 25-49 unemployed year olds.

Age discrimination is still one of the main challenges facing older workers trying to find a job. As part of the research into employer attitudes towards older workers, Policy Exchange applied for over 1,200 bar jobs and personal assistant positions as a 51 year old and a 25 year old. The responses to the, otherwise identical, applications showed a huge bias against the older worker. The 25 year old received nearly 125% more positive responses to the bar job than the 51 year old and 45% more positive responses to the personal assistant position.

Youth unemployment has understandably dominated the political debate and has led to the government focusing support on 18-24 year olds through the Youth Contract. However, the assumption that older workers are less affected by losing their jobs is challenged in the report. Of those currently unemployed, only 40% of those aged over 50 to return to work in the next 12 months. This compares to over 60% for those aged under 25. Older workers also see their future earnings fall if they do move back into work, with a period of six months out of work leading to an expected fall in pay of around 8%.

The report says that unless there is a significant shift in the current debate to consider the problems facing older workers and improve the support available to them, we could inflict serious long-term damage to the economy and living standards of a large part of the population.

It makes a number of recommendations including:

Encouraging employers to hold ‘protected conversations’ with employees around retirement. Instead of introducing new employment regulations, an informal framework could be set up that allows employers to talk to older workers about future working arrangements

The Youth Contract, which provides £1billion to young people out of work, should be extended to workers of all ages in a way that is targeted at those individuals furthest away from the labour market. It should be renamed The Jobs Contract

Volunteering should be promoted among older workers, especially where they need to develop skills and confidence to broaden improve their chances of re-entering paid employment

More conditions should be placed on people of all ages to find work. For those older workers whose experience is not suited to current opportunities in the labour market there should be a condition that they must show evidence of looking for work in different sectors

In the small minority of cases where the individual has failed to meet his or her requirements to look for work after 6 months on benefits, jobcentre advisers should have the option of requiring mandatory work experience in a sector that will help the jobseeker get back into future employment

Matthew Tinsley, author of the report, “It is not surprising that that there has been less of a focus on older workers. Youth unemployment topped the million mark recently and on the face of it older workers have fared relatively well over the past few decades.

“However, there are now over 8 million people aged 50 or over in the UK workforce. The skills and experience that older workers offer employers is vitally important to businesses and the economy as a whole. Greater levels of support must be put in place to help unemployed older workers back into the labour market, and to support individuals’ opportunities later in life.”