Special report: Lyndsey Simpson on tackling age discrimination
Lyndsey Simpson is a global expert on ageing populations and the visionary behind 55/Redefined. She tells Lysanne Currie why she believes dismantling age-related stereotypes can have a transformational impact on both individuals and UK plc.
Four years ago, Lyndsey Simpson received a phone call that would change her life. Then co-owner of hugely successful recruitment and HR outsourcer, the Curve Group, Lyndsey had begun her career in the 1990s in banking, spending eight years in various roles at Barclays.
“NatWest – or RBS as they were then – reached out to me with a problem they couldn’t solve,” she says. The bank needed to access people who were in commercial banking in the 1990s. But they’d all retired, weren’t on LinkedIn and weren’t applying for vacancies. Furthermore, the bank wasn’t allowed to rehire its alumni “because they can’t mark their own homework”.
Lyndsey was intrigued and agreed to help. She still had the same mobile phone number she’d had when working at Barclays, so set about ringing ex-colleagues she hadn’t spoken to in more than a decade. “I said to them, ‘I know you’re retired, but do you fancy coming back to work for me as a contractor for six months on this project review?’” she says.
Within eight weeks, Lyndsey had hired 400 retirees via “old-school recruitment techniques. We had to create a telephone team… Every person we spoke to gave me the numbers of three ex-colleagues, so we rang them. They weren’t on any platform and they had no idea that anybody was trying to reach them.”
Lyndsey saw there was a need for a marketplace – a way of bringing together people in this age group who were interested in extending their working years, with employers who wanted their applications and weren’t going to waste their time.
“The bigger thing that cropped up during the conversations with those 400 individuals was that they said retirement was probably one of the biggest mistakes of their entire lives,” says Lyndsey. “They’d all thought they wanted to retire, it had been a life goal, and for men, in particular, it was status driven: ‘If I can retire at 58, then somehow I’ve been more successful.’”
It’s easy to see why they might have had that attitude. “When you first retire, life is great,” says Lyndsey. “You answer to nobody. You go on the long holiday, you do the house up, you see all the people you’ve not had time to see, you take up a hobby. But after 12-18 months, there’s this dawning realisation you’ve got another 30-plus years to live. What are you going to do with your time when you can’t spend it all on holiday and you’ve got no more jobs to do around the house? By 11am on a Monday, you’ve read your six emails, done The Times crossword, and are wondering whether you should even bother to get dressed.”
As Lyndsey discovered, what lay at the end of that “retirement rainbow” wasn’t a pot of gold, but “invisibility, depression and lack of purpose”. The retirees she spoke to badly wanted to go back to work, “but found they couldn’t because businesses are ageist”.
She adds: “If you ask most people [what they would like], what they describe is not retirement but easing down their working hours. When surveyed, some 62% of over-55s said they’d prefer a reduction in working hours. But nobody wants to completely switch off the lights on work. So that was how 55/Redefined came about.”
Launched in 2021, 55/Redefined is an organisation that stands up for the over-50s, preventing age discrimination and helping them through various life changes and challenges: new careers, family shifts, moving homes and financial decisions. Its main aim, Lyndsey says, “is to be the most trusted global platform for over-50s and all those looking to engage with them”.
Here’s how it works: 55/Redefined is the parent company to several brands, engaged in lobbying and commissioned research, with a focus on 55 as a significant turning point. At this age, says Lyndsey, people often seek financial advice due to various life changes such as pensions, family transitions (such as children going to university), divorce or personal aspirations for change. Its sub-brands include Life/Redefined, a consumer platform with more than 125,000 users aged 50 and above in Europe and the US, providing services related to lifestyle and wellbeing; Jobs/Redefined, which serves the employment needs of its target demographic; and Work/Redefined, a corporate B2B offering solutions across the employee life cycle, catering to businesses seeking to accommodate and support older workers.
There are two important factors when it comes to ageing, Lyndsey believes: lifespan (how long you live) and health span (how many healthy years you have). Both have improved significantly over time (“We’ve added 30 years to lifespan in the last century alone,” Lyndsey points out). But regardless of physical health, your beliefs about ageing play a role too, she says. If you have ageist views – such as “I can’t learn new things at my age” – it can shorten your life expectancy by about seven years. And the most significant factor in healthy ageing is keeping a sense of purpose, “whether it’s working, volunteering or learning something new and applying it on a daily basis”.
Keeping your brain active is crucial, as it helps to prevent the physical accidents and illnesses associated with ageing. Put simply, the people who stay curious and continue to learn tend to age more healthily. “Their ability to stave off ageing diseases is significant,” says Lyndsey.
So how can we, as a society, combat unconscious bias and stop thinking of ageing as a negative? “It starts with education and insight,” says Lyndsey. “We need to educate people about what’s acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to age-related questions and stereotypes. I wouldn’t ask a 30-year-old in an interview, ‘When are you having children?’ Similarly, we shouldn’t ask someone who’s 55, ‘So when are you thinking about retiring?’ as all that person thinks is, ‘Do you want me out?’”
She cites the results of two recent 55/Redefined surveys – “Shut out, Forced out and Overlooked”, a study into workplace ages, and “The Unretiring Uprising”, a study of 4,000 over-50s across the UK to understand their preferences and blocks. The findings revealed that 56% of employees want to continue working beyond the age of 65. “In fact, a quarter want to work beyond 80,” she adds. “And yet, 65% of employers encourage retirement at legal retirement age or before, and only 30% of employers are ‘very motivated’ to recruit 55–75-year-olds. You’ve got this big disconnect of what the individual wants and what the corporation is doing.”
While 37% of employers cited the risks of poor health, and 21% “lack of energy”, as their major concern when hiring over-55s, older workers are no more likely to get sick or be a burden than their younger colleagues. In fact, says Lyndsey, “a worker over 50 is 200% less likely to take a day off work sick than a worker under 30.”
Generation X and older workers, especially, were raised with a strong work ethic and are willing to stay in their jobs for longer. Another stereotype to scotch is the assumption that older workers are not tech-savvy. Many over-50s have grown up with the development of the internet, so can quickly learn new digital skills. Of employees aged 55 to 65, 90% believe they have transferable skills to move role and/or industry if the employer would offer technical training. The problem, says Lyndsey, is they often don’t get the same opportunities for training and education as younger generations. Just 35% of employers are prepared to offer technical training and hire over-55s into a new industry or role. “Yet when they do,” says Lyndsey, “there’s no real differences in aptitude.”
Forged in fire
Lyndsey believes that energy is not about age but personality. She quotes Noon founder Eleanor Mills, who has written about “Queenagers”, midlife women with spending power and influence, who are “forged in fire”. Lyndsey says: “I think it’s very relevant, because by the time you’re hitting your fifth decade, you’ve experienced the works; bereavement, perhaps divorce, moving house, recession, redundancy. What happens from a talent perspective is, you get happier,” says Lyndsey. As a result, the over-50s tend to score highly in rates of work satisfaction.
Conversely, people in their 20s to 30s often worry about redundancy and uncertainty. The presence of older colleagues in the workplace, therefore, can raise overall levels of happiness. They may also be less competitive and more willing to mentor others. This being so, Lyndsey recommends actively creating a blended workforce. “Everybody gets happier, everybody gets more productive, and your absenteeism comes down,” she says. “The business case is unequivocal: you will improve productivity and every facet of your talent cost.”
Today, 55/Redefined supports over 65 global corporates, from Barclays to Boots, helping to educate senior management teams and encouraging them to diversify their personnel. This could mean looking at their career pages, internal language and advertising to ensure they reflect a broader demographic. As Lyndsey explains, focusing on the over-50s is a significant global trend, in line with ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles. Without a strategy for tapping into the over-50 population, business growth prospects are limited.
When it comes to the accounting profession – “a classic example of an industry that will typically, particularly if they’re big firms, retire too early, in their 50s,” says Lyndsey – she suggests creating talent pools of retirees who can work for a few months each year, to combat the talent shortage. While the profession is “way behind every other sector that we work with, from retail to grocery to general financial services”, some firms are getting it right. “EY is one of our age pioneer partners, and they’ve switched on to the importance of supporting their older partners in transitioning to new careers instead of forcing them to retire at 55.” In the two years leading up to retirement, they help these partners figure out what their next career could be, inside or outside EY.
And if there’s one thing Lyndsey should know about, it’s a new career. “This is my eighth business,” she says, “and in all the years I’ve been an entrepreneur, I’ve always had to choose between my commercial ventures and philanthropic interests, such as volunteering for the NSPCC. This is the very first time the two come together. We’re tackling ageism worldwide, and people from all corners of the globe are thanking us, saying, ‘You’ve given me hope, you’ve given me a pathway of support.’ So the bigger we grow, and the more companies we work with, the more money we create – which in turn gives us the ability to impact millions of lives globally. By doing good, we are good."