Lockdown exit strategy can’t ignore older workers

Senior couple

The over-50s are a vital cog in the smooth running of the economy, offering masses of experience and the ability to learn from mistakes

The 20-somethings will be fed back into the workforce first. The morning commutes will be staggered. Offices may start working on rotas to stop them getting too crowded. Hot-desking will be banned – yay! – and no one will be allowed to share pens, folders or spend too much time hanging out at the water cooler discussing last night’s episode of Normal People. And, most of all, the over-50s, the most vulnerable group, should be kept on lockdown for longer than everyone else. Slowly, a plan for lifting lockdown and getting the economy back to normal is starting to emerge.

But hold on. True, that might be the right scientific advice. It is clear that Covid-19 hits older people far harder than it does younger age groups. There is a problem, however, and the Government should consult some economists as well as epidemiologists. In truth, the economy will miss those older workers most of all.

It is their experience that is the real driving force behind businesses, both large and small. One of the biggest challenges we face is how to extend working lives as the population ages, and getting rid of all the staff with a few grey hairs is hardly going to help that. The sooner we bring older workers out of lockdown, the faster the economy will start to recover.

We still know far too little about Covid-19 to have any clear idea when the virus will peak, whether there will be a second wave or what the final mortality rate will look like. But there is one thing that now looks to have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.

The older you are, the greater the risk. It varies by country, but mortality rates rise steeply for the over-50s, and keep on climbing for people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. For policymakers struggling to find a way out of lockdown, without igniting a second wave, that leads to a very obvious conclusion. Keep the older people isolated for longer.

If 20 or 30-somethings are at low risk, then they can be pushed back into the workforce first, with older people told to stay at home for longer. It wouldn’t even be hard to turn that into policy. The furlough scheme that parks workers could be gradually eased by age group, and factories and call centres could be told to bring staff back in reverse age order. At this rate, just about every office is going to look like an app start-up in Shoreditch. Lots of bright young things buzzing around, with nobody on the wrong side of 40 in sight.

The trouble is, while that might work for controlling Covid-19, it is going to be terrible for the performance of businesses. Sure, lots of companies like to promote youth, and revitalise their teams with fresh people and new ideas. But they need the over-50s as well, and more than they often realise. Here’s why.

First, it is their experience, networks and social and financial capital that are often the real driving force of the economy. At most companies, the directors and senior managers are typically at least 40 and often 50-plus.

Running an organisation is not easy. It often takes years of experience to work out the best strategies to follow, how to motivate teams, and the difference between a great new product and a slightly rubbish one. Deals are struck because of relationships that have been built up over many years, and because people know and trust each other. None of that can be conjured up overnight. It all takes time.

That is even more true at smaller companies, which are often completely dependent on the founder running them day-to-day, and among start-ups. The 20-something internet entrepreneur in a hoodie creating a huge company overnight makes for a good film script, and it has happened in one or two spectacular cases, but in real life it is actually rare.

In the US, for example, the average age of a founder of a new company is 42 with many above that (and that is true even of technology).

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that the average age of founders of the highest-growth start-ups was 45, and that companies grew faster as the driving entrepreneurs behind them got slightly more experienced.

Amazon, for example, significantly accelerated after Jeff Bezos turned 45. That shouldn’t be any great surprise. Everyone learns from their mistakes, and gets better the more often they have practised something.

Next, one of our little recognised successes of recent years has been extending careers to reflect longer lives (and no matter how bad Covid-19 gets it is unlikely to fundamentally change that). More and more people have been working for longer, and retirement ages have been pushed upwards.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of over-65s still working has doubled over the last 20 years, from 5pc to 11pc, and they had been projected to account for half of all employment growth over the next decade. Finding ways for people to work for longer is the only way we can realistically cope with an ageing population.

True, we might need to keep the over-50s in lockdown for longer than the 20 and 30-somethings. They are most at risk, and although healthcare systems have not been overwhelmed yet, that could still happen. But we need to acknowledge there is going to be a huge economic price to pay for that. And the sooner we work out how to bring every age group back into the workforce as fast as possible, the quicker we will be able to recover from this crisis.