Why Thousands Of Midlifers Are Quitting Their Jobs... For Ever

UK: Call it a reaction to Covid, or simply realising there’s more to life, but more over-50s than ever are leaving work in search of adventure.

‘I have worked and saved for 30 years,’ says Lucy Walker, 54, until recently a manager in the accounts department of a large FMCG firm. ‘I’ve been busting a gut for that company. Then, during Covid, I knew two people who lost someone. My son is 16, I have two years left before he’s away to university. Working during lockdown was hard. Then the company started discussing redundancies and I thought, “I’ve wasted my life working for them. They don’t care. I’ve got no work/life balance.” So I went for redundancy and, if I’m lucky, I’ve got almost half my life left. I will never go back to work.’

Walker invested her redundancy money in buying a property to rent and persuaded her self-employed partner to start winding down his business. And, in preparation for their ‘great adventure years’, the couple recently bought a camper van. ‘Once my son has gone to uni, we’ll just drive through the Channel Tunnel, toss a coin for left or right and just see where we go,’ she grins happily. ‘I likened it to getting divorced. I’ve wanted to get divorced from that company for 10 years. Covid brought it home that I need to live. Working is just wasting time.’

Walker, who lives near Guildford, is very far from alone in that sentiment. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, between October and December 2021 there were half a million fewer 50- to 70-year-olds in the workplace compared with the same period in 2019. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the number of 50- to 64-year-olds who are neither working nor looking for a job has risen by almost 250,000.

The Great Grey Resignation is surprising for the statisticians at the ONS for two reasons: firstly, it’s a dramatic reversal of the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, when the over-50s were heading into the workplace in ever greater numbers; and, secondly, it isn’t entirely clear why they’re leaving. Or rather, it wasn’t – until the ONS did something unprecedented. In February 2022 it asked those over-50s who had reported being out of work a series of questions which all boiled down to one word – why?

The largest group to quit their jobs with no intention of finding a new one were professionals and associate professionals – including doctors, scientists, defence staff, people in manufacturing, transport and financial services. Sixty per cent of them hadn’t expected to leave work early. Perhaps more surprisingly, the ONS figures showed that only 15 per cent of them had lost their job. The rest chose to leave for reasons that sounded, frankly, more like a bunch of millennials than the last of the boomers and first of the Gen X cohort – their job not offering flexible working, not feeling valued, wanting a change in lifestyle, too much stress and simply not wanting to work any more.

‘Covid was this huge threat to life and health that made people look hard at their lives and wonder if they’d really lived the life they planned to,’ explains Clare Moffat, head of business development at pension company Royal London.

‘We’ve seen police officers, lawyers, teachers, doctors and bankers taking tax-free lump sums – which isn’t always the wisest move. Public sector, legal and financial service professionals quite often have defined benefit pensions based on your salary at retirement and the number of years they’ve worked for the employer, rather than the amount of money they’ve contributed to the pension. But people are sometimes so keen to leave the workplace that they don’t take financial advice on how and when to best do that.’

The ONS figures showed 50-somethings were significantly more likely to give stress or mental health reasons than those aged 60 years and over, and were more likely to have left for a change in lifestyle or because they did not feel valued in their job. The most powerful inducement to return to work wasn’t changes in cost of living, a well-paid job or even a job that better suited their skills – it was for ‘social company’. These are people who know the world of work and had embraced it for decades, but, after the shock of the pandemic, have decided it just doesn’t suit them any more.

‘People are fed up,’ says Stuart Lewis, chief executive of Rest Less, an online community for the over 50s. ‘Life expectancy estimates have taken a hit. People are very aware of their own health – even if they have been unharmed by long Covid, they know someone who has been affected by it. Last year pension pots were riding high on Government stimulus. People thought, “We’ve had a long period of wealth creation through investment markets, we can do this. Life’s too short, I’ve put 30 to 40 years into work, and I don’t feel valued in return.”’

- Author: Stephen Armstrong, The Telegraph


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