No, we are not talking about yoga or pilates when we talk about ‘flexible after fifty’. Instead what’s caught our eye is the 50+ Choices Roundtable Flexible After Fifty report published in February which calls on businesses to promote the availability of flexible working options to help those over fifty be more active in the workforce. This report is timely as legal changes to the right to request flexible working are just around the corner which may pave the way for more employee requests.

We are, of course, no longer strangers to the concept of flexible working. However, the benefits of offering flexible working have often been focused on working parents with an emphasis on how working from home or more flexible hours allows those individuals to juggle the work/ childcare balance more effectively. It is, therefore, refreshing to read in this report how flexible working can benefit other demographics including, in this instance, the over 50s.  The report explains how flexible working can be harnessed by employers for their benefit and urges business to actively promote the availability and range of flexible work options to both new and existing employees, monitor the uptake of flexible working, and offer support to people managers to better support flexible workers of all ages.

We know that many over 50s chose not to return to work post pandemic but there are signs that change may be afoot – could this be down to the greater availability of part-time and flexible working? The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported at the end of last year that a record number of people in their fifties and over were in part-time work, with an increase of 12% since 2021 and a 26% increase in the last decade. Research reported in the Flexible After Fifty report shows that the demand for flexibility is higher among older workers than other age groups with 72% already working flexibly or wanting to do so and it’s easy to see why. 

Often dubbed the ‘sandwich' generation many over 50s now find themselves needing to juggle work with caring responsibilities for aging parents and/ or their own children or, indeed, their grandchildren, given the spiralling costs of childcare.  Equally many will be keen to continue to work for financial and social reasons but may just not want to work as much or face the battle of the daily commute. 

Of course, the benefits of flexible working are not just employee-focussed.  Although the demand for talent has dwindled from the highs of a couple of years ago, the benefit to employers in attracting and/ or retaining experienced employees are obvious, especially given that the over 50s now make up over 30% of the working age population. 

Consistent with the themes highlighted by the report the government has, for some time, recognised the importance of flexible working as a means of keeping employees of all ages in work. Making the ability to request flexible working a ‘Day One’ right was in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto back in 2019 and this change will be introduced from 6 April alongside additional tweaks to the process as follows:

  • The number of requests that an employee can make within a 12-month period will increase from one to two; 
  • Whilst the bases which allow an employer to refuse a request remain the same (limited to one or more of eight permitted business reasons set out in the legislation) employers will now be obliged to consult with the employee if a request is going to be refused;
  • The accompanying (and freshly revised) ACAS Code of Practice on flexible working emphasises the need to meaningfully consider alternatives if the employer is thinking of refusing a request.  

These changes will mean an update to your flexible working policy will be required but, perhaps more significantly, it is worth considering whether you are likely to see an increase in flexible working requests. One reason for this, of course, is that more people will be able to make a request, earlier on in their employment. However, employers who are moving away from hybrid working arrangements to full or majority time attendance in the workplace (as many employers now are) may need to be particularly alert to increases in requests as employees try to nail down their ability to work from home. 

Flexible working is here to stay and the mood music is changing. Once seen as the preserve of working mothers and often tolerated with a sigh, the new world of hybrid working has opened our eyes to how differently work can be done – in a way that allows for flexibility. This has led to many employers positively embracing the benefits it can bring in terms of widening the talent pool – the retention of the over 50s being one such example. 

The April changes don’t mean employers will be forced into arrangements that won’t work on the ground, but they do reflect a more modern approach to flexible working – chiming with what has been happening as a result of the pandemic. Anecdotally we know that employers are much more open-minded to considering alternative ways of working and flexible working requests are no longer the big deal they used to be. If that leads to happy employers and happy employees – well, that’s not a bad place to be, in our book, anyway…

This blog was co-authored with Emily Fox.