Unemployment and older workers: overcoming the barriers to decent work

Unemployment and older workers: overcoming the barriers to decent work

Fifty-two-year-old Augusto Blanco retrains in programming with fellow students aged around 20.

(Roberto Martín)

When are we going to stop working? This question has long been sounding in Europe’s leading institutions. How can the market be adjusted to match ever more generous life expectancy? The average retirement age in Europe is currently around 65 but is expected to rise to 66, 67 or even 68 by 2030. It is an issue that stirs controversy – just look at the recent protests in France – but also poses a paradox. At the same time as consideration is being given to extending our expiry date as workers, there are people in the last stage of their careers who simply cannot find a job.

Youth unemployment is much talked about, and rightly so, as growing precariousness has left young people facing the greatest difficulties in the world of work. But little attention is paid to unemployment among the older workforce, that invisible group also faced with below-average employment rates. In Europe, 70 per cent of the population is in work. But if we look more closely at older workers, the rate falls to around 62 to 63 per cent. In countries such as France, Italy, Croatia, Greece or Spain it does not even reach 60 per cent.

Older unemployed people have it almost as hard finding a job as young people who are just starting out. In Spain, 55 per cent of the older unemployed have been looking for work for over a year. They form part of the long-term unemployed, a category where grey hair abounds. Seven out of ten chronically unemployed people are over 50 years old.

The reasons for this include structural problems such as job instability or low education levels, but also age-related prejudice or ageism. “When we talk of ageism, we are referring to the unequal treatment of a person based on their age and without regard for their abilities and skills,” Aída Díaz-Tendero, a researcher and professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and board member of HelpAge, an organisation that seeks to highlight the unjust exclusion of perfectly valid workers simply based on their date of birth, tells Equal Times.

Dynamic staff wanted

Most job ads do not explicitly say they are looking for a ‘young worker’. They do not set an age limit. But the language used says it all. Every time an advert appeals for ‘energetic’ or ‘dynamic’ workers it is subtly trying to exclude older applicants.

“There are many forms of underhand discrimination. With ads like those, a 50-year-old is unlikely to even make it to the interview,” says Laura Rosillo, a specialist in human resources and age management.

Businesses are generally more reluctant to hire older workers, as shown in an experiment conducted by the Bilbao-based thinktank, the Iseak Foundation. It sent 1,600 fictitious CVs in response to over 800 real vacancies. The result: the older applicants’ CVs received 50 per cent fewer calls than the younger ones.

Another example is provided by the Adecco Foundation, which interviewed a hundred companies in 2021 on recruitment and ageism. Forty per cent of them admitted that age was an issue for them when recruiting, raising concerns about health problems, difficulties in fitting in with a young workforce, lesser flexibility, outdated knowledge – all ageist prejudices.

“The labour market has not evolved with the changes in age,” insists Rosillo. “That may have been true 50 years ago, but a 45-year-old is still a kid nowadays.”

Women are even more impacted by age barriers, and their unemployment rate is double that of men.

“Women are greater victims of the stereotypes that associate beauty with youth,” explains Díaz-Tendero. “They also face the added disadvantages arising from childcare and household responsibilities and the impact this has on their working lives.”

There are legal instruments aimed at tackling age discrimination, such as Recommendation 162 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Union directive of 2000, state legislation such as the US Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or the Spanish law on equal treatment (‘Ley Zerolo’) passed in 2023.

“The right to non-discrimination is a fundamental civil right. The problem is that it often clashes with freedom of contract,” says Díaz-Tendero, which is precisely why it is important to denounce such practices, she adds. “Each ruling in favour of this right is another step towards ensuring that people and their qualities are taken into account rather than their age.”

We are all obsolete

One of the most common prejudices about older workers is that their knowledge is obsolete. And there is a reason for this. Technology, the digital economy and artificial intelligence are developing at such a pace that they are not the only ones becoming obsolete. We all are.

In programming schools, robotics courses, drone piloting or 3D design, there is increasingly a mix of very young profiles, recent graduates, and older ones, people returning to education either to update their knowledge or to retrain in a new field. Fifty-two-year-old Augusto Blanco is one such example. A translator by profession, he decided to train as a programmer and is taking an intensive course at the private Releevant school alongside fellow students aged around 19 or 20.

“Starting from scratch doesn’t worry me, I’m very motivated, I like to learn. It’s true that I had doubts at first, because of my age but not my ability, I know I can rise to the challenge. What I didn’t know was whether my age would be a handicap in terms of finding a job afterwards,” he tells Equal Times.

ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) is the sector currently offering the most job opportunities, but it is also one of the sectors with the youngest face. In Spain, only 16.3 per cent of ICT workers are over 50. The question here is whether all older workers have the same opportunities for training and reskilling. The answer is no. Technological training courses of the kind Augusto is doing are usually private and require a significant financial commitment.

“Public administrations do not finance these types of courses,” says José Manuel Ezquerra, CEO of Releevant. “There are cities where unemployed people are offered courses in flamenco or ham slicing but not programming, or cities where they still give Word courses. Training is very disconnected from the market.”

The Arrabal association offers free courses for older unemployed people on low incomes and with limited qualifications, such as specific training to work as a waiter or kitchen assistant but also digital literacy courses. The association’s employment technician, Aurora Castro, acknowledges that “there are still people in a certain age bracket that are lost when it comes to office automation. They haven’t had the time or the resources to learn, or haven’t seen the need. Now, however, even job interviews are done online, so they have to learn how to use these platforms.”

The digital divide is a barrier to the integration of older workers. Less training means more long-term unemployment, more long-term unemployment means more poverty.

Reports such as that of the Foessa Foundation warn of an increase in severe social exclusion in households headed by people aged between 45 and 64. “If they don’t manage to enter the market, they can easily fall into depression and get caught in a cycle that becomes difficult to break out of,” warns Castro. “They end up surviving on subsidies or the minimum income. That’s ‘bread for today and hunger tomorrow’”.

Public commitment

The 50-64 age bracket is what is known today as the ‘support generation’. Support because, in many cases, they have already started to care for their elderly parents but are also supporting their children, many of whom are still at home. The importance of employment at this point is all the more crucial. “It is a population group that is just as important for public policies as the over-65s,” acknowledges political scientist Aída Díaz-Tendero. “It is also a time in life when matters such as health and finances take on great importance for the next stage.”

What are public policies doing to help them get jobs? Above all, they are giving employers incentives to hire older workers.

In Spain, Italy and Poland, discounts are given on their social security contributions. In Finland – a country which, together with Norway, Iceland and Sweden, has the best employment figures for older people, with eight out of ten in work – employers are also granted subsidies to cover their wage costs.

“We are critical of these incentives,” explains Adriá Junyent, spokesperson for the Spanish trade union CCOO. “They have proved to be useless as they were designed in a way that meant they only favoured temporary contracts. Now they are being designed better, with a commitment to permanency. In any case, they should only be a supplement to other measures such as retraining.”

To talk of the temporary nature of employment is to talk of quality in employment. Working from the age of 50 onwards is essential, but at any price? In countries such as the United Kingdom, they are beginning to warn of a new phenomenon resulting from the precariousness of the times we live in: the uberisation of work for older people, over-50s forced to take gig work, doing overtime on motorbikes as delivery drivers. They are trying to warn against situations like those already seen in Japan, where a successful campaign to hire older people has grown in tandem with the number of accidents at work.

Changing curriculum

The boundaries of age-based exclusion are very blurred. In most sectors, it is around 50, but in others, such as start-ups or advertising, workers are considered old at 40 or even 30 years of age. The label ‘senior talent’ is starting to gain traction, however, and to be associated with assets such as experience and commitment.

“Many companies recognise the merits and the work ethic of older people,” says Fernando Fernández Cavada, partner at Silver Talent, an employment platform aimed at older workers. “We contact companies that are asking for more than five years’ experience, companies with positions that are very difficult to fill, such as in the construction or industrial sectors, or in areas such as the hotel and catering or customer service, where employers are looking for more attentive people with good interpersonal skills, people who can express themselves better, who are more patient.” The platform also offers jobs all over Europe. Labour mobility is not tied to a year of birth.

“There is work out there,” says Santiago Bernet, founder of Job50, another consultancy firm specialising in senior talent. “We recommend a common-sense approach, being clear about what you want.” Bernet is in favour of the ‘blind CV’, which does not include personal data, such as any photographs, markers of origin or age, to avoid any discriminatory filters.

Laura Rosillo, an expert in human resources, has her reservations. “Aside from the photo and the age, if you look at the CV and it is very long, you know that the person is over 50, regardless of whether the CV is blind or not.”

More important, in her view, is ensuring that HR employees receive the right training, as well as those who program the algorithms that do the initial screening.

She also recommends new strategies for the unemployed: “The over-50s cannot act as they would if they were looking for their first job. It’s not about writing a CV to find a job but about knowing how to offer services, telling the company what you can contribute.”

A month away from finishing his studies, Augusto Blanco, a translator and newly qualified programmer, is about to face this challenge. “Some time ago, I read that a person is at the peak of their career at the age of 55, that this is when they have the most to offer. I am convinced of this, but companies need to be convinced of it too. I know that I will go out into the market just as well equipped as my colleagues, the only difference is my age.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin