Summary: The policy response to the under-tapped economic potential of over-50s women should be the creation of a government-sponsored national platform (called ‘Portfolio Women’ or similar, to represent a step-change in career). It would act as an accessible and user-friendly cross between Mumsnet and LinkedIn for women aged over 50, with official backing from the DWP, DfE, the Government Equalities Office, and input from the DIT and British Chambers of Commerce.
The aim would be to facilitate networking opportunities between women seeking to employ others, or to work up new business ideas together based on their complementary skills. HMG would seed-fund the best ideas and provide training and logistical assistance to get social enterprises and SMEs up-and-running in different localities, as well as providing help to scale up the best transferable business ideas to the national, and even international level. The platform would also, critically, act to find new ways of deploying older women’s transferable skills in a freelance, part-time or full-time capacity to the wider economy.
Rationale: The pandemic has accelerated a pre-existing trend towards the under- and unemployment of the over-50s workforce in the UK, many of whom could, and want to, continue working up to and including retirement age. Between 15 and 20 years of pre-retirement tax and national insurance contributions from this demographic are at risk of being lost to the Treasury.
The good news is that ‘second’ or even ‘third’ careers can be tailored to meet the needs of the economy as it recovers from the pandemic. The skills and experience of women aged over 50, in particular, can be utilised in new ways, not only to create new forms of employment and income for themselves, but to design and contribute to new forms of working and entrepreneurship that employ others, men and women, older and younger.
The overall objective would be to break with the idea that only what an individual has done in the past is applicable to what she goes on to do in the years before and beyond retirement. Just as younger people now move more flexibly between career paths and sectors, so the changes already impacting on the economy should govern the flexibility with which older workers re-imagine their contribution to new and developing businesses and industries. Many women who have worked in the service sector may feel they have little to offer to an economy increasingly based on new technologies and environmental jobs. But all sectors need front-facing, sales, marketing and ‘people’ skills, and the UK economy has disproportionately lost women workers with precisely these skills since 2020.
Setting up a user-friendly and dedicated portal to encourage over-50s women to think differently about their employment potential in the post-2021 UK economy would provide a much needed boost to those who might otherwise see few replacement employment opportunities for themselves. In 2019, Alison Rose, Chief Executive Officer at the NatWest Group, led a review which revealed that the unlocked potential of women entrepreneurs represented a loss of £250 billion to the British economy. Despite the subsequent rise in female-led enterprises, a quarter of women are now giving up their careers due to work-life imbalances exacerbated by the pandemic, according to McKinsey ( https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/realising-potential-female-entrepreneurs-has-never-been-alison-rose/).
Unless they are engaged in full-time care roles, the time constraints on over-50s women’s are often less acute than for younger women juggling childcare, home education and business responsibilities at the same time. Older women’s experience of family commitments (eg children living longer at home; caring for elderly relatives and grandchildren) often provides them with the insights and very locally-embedded networks required to identify business opportunities that meet new and existing community needs. Yet they frequently lack the support, confidence and practical help to make these insights commercially viable, and may only have their own experience as employees to build on.
Some women will be natural entrepreneurs, while others will have the back-of-office skills needed to make the best ideas happen, lawyers and accountants included. Older women who have previously held senior national and international positions may wish to remain economically active in a different capacity, in combination with others. Some entrepreneurial ideas and business plans could be geographically very focused (eg in neglected rural areas) or seek to draw on nationwide networks of ‘common spirits’ who collectively want to see (eg) an expansion in provision for ‘at home’ care for the elderly, or a more cost-effective provision of goods and services that can only be implemented at scale.
The key to this platform would be flexibility: each woman would register her CV, skills and experience, along with an indication of her desired outcomes, such as the number of hours she is available to work each week, and at what level of responsibility, together with the skills and re-training requirements she would be willing to offer or acquire in specific economic sectors. Online forums could be arranged at (eg) three levels to cover ‘rural/neighbourhood’, ‘urban/sub-urban’ and ‘national/international’ opportunities and ideas for registered members to explore together, combined with links to resources and funding opportunities applicable to each locality and level. Setting up remote linkages between women working at home or in different locations would also benefit businesses requiring a variety of professional skills: a book-keeper in Newcastle, could quite easily become part of a local start-up in Hampshire, and vice versa, for example.
A policy explicitly tailored to re-employing older women, and/or deploying their skills to create new businesses would be a major selling point of this new platform to the wider economy. Many older women give up the search for employment because what they want, and what employers want, no longer coincides. Ageism and a mismatch in how the younger workforce views what older people, above all women, have to offer have led to a damaging set of stereotypes. Levelling the playing field to showcase what this demographic has to offer would provide a win-win outcome for all.