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How to identify typical barriers

Jobseeker characteristics section image - depicting a magnifying glass examining blank pieces of a jigsaw

This section provides a list of the more common barriers 50+ people face when looking for work. It is not always easy to identify barriers and while some are real, others are perceptions. Being over 50 sometimes makes existing barriers appear worse.

People aged 50+ may be reticent about expressing their feelings. At the same time, they may be reluctant to ‘blow their own trumpet’. You will want to be sure you are developing enough understanding to help unlock their potential for employment.

Research from learndirect has found there is a perception gap between what jobseekers and employers think are the key skills to getting a job. This brief summary contrasts the findings for respondents over 50 with those aged 16-21.

Typical barriers

Lack of self confidence and low self esteem

Loss of work can undermine anyone’s self confidence. The longer people are out of work, the lower it can sink. Research has shown this to be particularly true for men as work has traditionally played a central role in their lives and identity. However, work is now playing an increasingly important role for many women too.

Being made redundant, even when the job lost has been a chore, can affect a person’s ability to put energy into a job search or to think laterally about what skills they could offer or use.

Some people will think they have nothing to offer. They may well also feel bitter about what they perceive as unfair treatment. Focus on any positives your customer tells you about to boost their self confidence without inflating their aptitudes.

Wanting to give up

If people make unfocused, random or blanket job applications, they rarely achieve success. Constant rejections can add to feelings of despondency and low self esteem. The job applicant may believe their age is a major barrier to finding work. Help your customer to focus on presenting job applications and CVs in a positive, up to date format that describes their competency to fill the vacancy rather than their age.

Modern recruitment practices are different from those of past years

Many people find that their earlier experiences of how to look for a job are no longer relevant. The current recruitment environment, as well as the labour market, has changed and some over-50s may feel at a loss when faced with new recruitment practices. However, contacts, personal networks and job advertisements are well known job search practices which you can encourage your customer to use among others.

Job expectations versus changed labour market requirements

Wanting more of the same is not often an option in today’s labour market. While it is reasonable to want the same or better wage or salary level as previously earned, customers may need coaching to better understand the impact of the recession and changing job roles in the current economy.

Fixed views on the jobs they could do and the skills they can offer

Some over-50s may have a fixed view of the skills they can offer. They frequently think only of the tasks they performed in past roles and struggle to identify transferable skills that might be of use to an employer or in self-employment They may not take into account all aspects of their life and experience such as their hobbies, voluntary work and social activities which have given them valuable skills and competencies. It is not impossible to retrain for another job, or to upgrade qualifications already gained, for which there may be labour market demand.

Lack of formal qualifications and less access to training

Many employers use formal qualifications as a proxy for skills and will automatically filter out job applications from those who do not have them.

Compared with younger age groups, fewer over-50s have formal qualifications and those qualifications they have may be out of date. But many do have in-depth work experience valued by employers. Almost 20 per cent of people aged 50 to state pension age have higher level qualifications.

Older workers may have had less access to training in employment and once unemployed. Training courses can sometimes be expensive and time consuming. If their skills are out of date and relate to defunct roles, it can be difficult to translate them into transferable and saleable skills. Engage your customer in a skills check that helps them understand that they may need new or additional skills training to improve their chances in a changing labour market.

Lack of IT skills

Some 50+ customers will not have had the opportunity to learn IT skills. Others may have acquired just enough skills to do a specific job of work. Some may be fearful of learning a new skill and may not yet recognise that almost all jobs today require a basic competency in IT.

Working life patterns

The different working life patterns of men and women can affect the types of roles they have had and the skills they offer. Many older women have taken time off to bring up children and may have worked in less skilled and part-time jobs as a result.

Caring responsibilities

According to Carers UK, a quarter of women and 18 per cent of men aged 50-59 provide some care to family members or friends. This is the highest proportion for any adult age group.

Although past or current caring responsibilities may have brought additional skills, they may also have created a sense of isolation and loss of contact with the working world. Current caring responsibilities may mean people can only work certain hours or are looking for jobs with flexible working hours.

Health issues

Health issues can be a major barrier for some over-50s. Around half of people claiming health-related benefits are over 50. Some conditions become more common as people grow older and can be work-limiting. Although some of your customers may be deemed fit for some work, they may worry that work will exacerbate their condition or impede their recovery. See Health conditions and work.

This case study illustrates how an employment adviser who had had training in mental health awareness was able to identify a possible problem and refer her customer for specialist help.

Case study: how to identify typical barriers (Reed in Partnership)

Lee is in his early 50s.  Leaving school at 15, he went straight on the unemployment register and remained there for 37 years.

Lee had always been considered ‘different’ and difficult to engage with socially throughout his teenage years and adult life. He had attempted to find employment but received little or no support. The small amount of support he received was inappropriate and actually worked against him. Year after year, decade after decade, he was passed from one programme to another and referred to every main provider. Over the years he had many confrontations with both the providers and Jobcentre Plus because he felt that they insisted he complete programmes which were of no benefit to him.Numeracy and literacy training became a real issue for him as he has several academic qualifications and an evidenced IQ of almost 180

Lee lived a solitary life in a one bedroom flat with very little social interaction, His day consisting of watching TV and reading a day old newspaper. Estranged from his family and no friends, he lost what few interpersonal skills he had had and many skills failed to develop.

Lee’s life changed dramatically when an employment adviser at Reed in Partnership, who had received mental health awareness training, realised that something was wrong and decided to do something different.

She referred Lee to Real Dawn’s First Step Group Therapy for a full mental health assessment.  He settled into the group well and, after assessment, the facilitator, who was trained to observe indicators of mental health problems, suggested that Lee might have a condition known as High Functioning Aspergers and that he would benefit from a full psychiatric assessment to confirm the initial diagnosis.

Although it took over a year for psychiatric assessment to take place, Lee’s previously unrecognised condition was confirmed. This profoundly changed two major areas of his life. First and foremost, Lee now understood his problem and it understood by others too. Secondly, appropriate interventions could now be offered.These factors improved his life dramatically.

After almost 40 years of unbroken unemployment, he is now employed as a proof reader. He is in his first personal relationship, has joined a walking club, enjoys photography.  And his interpersonal skills, although influenced by his Aspergers, have improved to such an extent that he now uses public transport and engages people in conversation without prompting.

Overcoming his barriers to employment would not have been possible had Reed in Partnership’s employment adviser not received mental health awareness training.  Lee would almost certainly still have been living in his one bedroom flat in isolation.

 Age discrimination and negative stereotypes

Age discrimination in recruitment continues but it is difficult to prove. Many 50+ jobseekers believe ageism is at the core of their difficulties. Not having job applications acknowledged, not being called to interviews, and being told they are too experienced or over-qualified by employers are frequently interpreted as evidence of ageist attitudes. Ageist language, such as ‘pensioner’ or ‘baby boomer’ to define people is common.

The over-50s also have to contend with widely held negative stereotypes and misconceptions.

Stronger desire for local employment

Many people will be seeking employment in a local area. Established roots, relationships and commitments often mean a reluctance to travel for work so
50+ customers require clear information on the employment needs of local employers.

Geographic location

Where people live can be a significant barrier to finding work. There may be few suitable jobs available in the area or they may have travel difficulties, particularly in rural areas. It is important for you to be aware of any local factors that may affect your customer’s ability to find a suitable job.

Every 50+ customer is a complex matrix of skills and experience. They have more to offer than they realise and may need your help to be able to do this. If you think about the people you know who are over 50, it is clear they have different approaches to life and work and will have different priorities as they age. There is a desire to be treated with respect, as an individual and not to feel written off. Many may have continuing financial commitments and concerns about financial security in later life. So continuing in employment is vital to them.

This site is for help and information only. It is not meant as an authoritative guide. It is not meant as an authoritative statement of the law, and future changes in the law and other programmes and initiatives could make it less accurate at times. TAEN, the Department for Work and Pensions and the European Social Fund take no responsibility for your use of the information. You should always take professional advice on any specific legal or financial matter.

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Survey of Jobseekers Aged 50+ (TAEN and the University of Edinburgh Business School, 2013)

Jobseekers don't know what employers want (research from learndirect)

Health conditions and work

Case study: how to identify typical barriers (Reed in Partnership)

TAEN: Age Stereotypes and Evidence of Discrimination

TAEN: Key Facts on Health, Employment and Age

Older Women, Work and Health: Reviewing the Evidence

Older Men, Work and Health: Reviewing the Evidence

Ageing, Work-Related Stress and Health

Addaction briefing on alcohol, its effects and alcohol problems

Age discrimination in recruitment: Citizenship Survey 2009-2010, DCLG

Useful links

Employing older workers

Learning Disabilities
Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities

Click on the links for information about common physical health conditions

Heart Conditions
British Heart Foundation

Blood Pressure
Blood Pressure UK

Arthritis Care

Asthma UK

Diabetes UK

Click on the links for information about common mental health conditions.

The Work and Mental Health Website for workers, employers, carers and clinicians (Royal College of Psychiatrists)

Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health

Mental Health A-Z (Mental Health Foundation)

Depression and anxiety
Mental Health Foundation

Alcohol misuse
Alcoholics Anonymous

Bipolar disorder

Anxiety disorders

Personality disorders

Substance misuse
Mental Health Foundation
Narcotics Anonymous