GRACE’S MUSINGS: Making short work of ageism

Air Hostess

Have you ever been made to feel “past it” as a midlife woman at work? That your wisdom and experience are outweighed by the fact you’re no longer a “youthful”-looking 22-year-old? Well, good news – industry is suddenly crying out for people like you and me to fill the gaps created by the UK’s growing recruitment crisis. I don’t know whether to feel glad or insulted. What I do want to ask is: what took them so long?   

Did it really require an economic meltdown to make British industry realise midlife women are a massive untapped resource just waiting to be mobilised? The past few days have seen businesses from EasyJet to Halfords – and even the NHS – crying out for mature female recruits. In a world of age discrimination, it’s music to my midlife ears. But I can’t help feeling irritated, too.

The motoring and cycling retailer Halfords put out a call for retired women to join the ranks of the 1,000 new technicians it aims to have working in its car repair centres over the next 12 months. According to its chief executive, Graham Stapleton, they want to “attract retirees back into the workforce, as well as increasing the number of women in technician roles”. That might sound like baby steps to you and me, but it’s revolutionary in a business as traditional as theirs.

If you’ve ever harboured dreams of being an air steward – though if it were up to me, we’d all be aiming for the pilot’s seat – EasyJet has just launched a recruitment drive for people over the age of 45 to join their cabin crew. And the NHS is finally giving those struggling with menopause symptoms the option to work from home. Of its 1.3 million employees, 42.3% are aged between 46 and 65. One million of its staff are female. You do the maths. 

In November, Amanda Pritchard, the new chief executive of NHS England, told The Telegraph: “Menopause is not a health condition, it’s a stage of life, and I want all women facing this transition in the NHS to have access to the right support to stay in and thrive at work.” We only had to wait 74 years for the first female CEO in NHS history to arrive and make that call – someone who sees the value that women in midlife bring to the UK’s largest employer. Here’s the bottom line. The UK has an ageing population. It also has 1.23 million job vacancies. In 2021, the Office for National Statistics calculated that there were 180,000 fewer over-50s in work than before the pandemic. In September, 362,000 over-50s were unemployed and 3.5 million 50- to 64-year-olds economically inactive. More than half of them were women.

Women suffer the double whammy of ageism and sexism in the workplace. Research shows that men, as they age, are viewed as being more valuable and competent at work. Women lose their credibility with every new grey hair – just one reason we try to hide any visible signs of ageing. Lots of women I know are angry that, after decades of high performance and hard graft, juggling career and family, and enduring frankly rotten workplace practices, they feel they’re being pushed aside. They become invisible. Yet many are still ambitious. They want fulfilling work. And their expertise will only increase as they age.

Don’t just take my word for it. This is what the Harvard Business Review has to say: “For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise – the main predictors of job performance – keep increasing even beyond the age of 80.” And a study by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center in the US recently found that certain mental skills, including multitasking and prioritisation, improve after the age of 50. Why wouldn’t you want to employ someone older, wiser and more reliable?

No woman should ever be made to feel like they’re on the scrapheap – and businesses in the UK are suddenly waking up to the consequences of doing exactly that. We know our worth as women in midlife and beyond. It’s about time everyone else did, too.

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