‘I’ve always thrown myself into work – now it keeps me alive’: the over-65s forced to join the ‘great unretirement’ | old people

Before Sue Brown retired three years ago, she felt burned out. At 67, she was juggling a busy job at a chauffeur company and caring for her partner, Neil, who had severe health issues. “I was taking bookings and managing drivers so I often left the house at 4am,” she says. “I’ve worked since I was 15, but it became too much.”

In February this year, Neil died. Two months later, Brown took a part-time job at a kitchen canteen in Dorking, Surrey, where she lives. At first she was looking for a distraction from her grief and a way to keep active, but as the cost of living soars, working has become a necessity. “I wasn’t entitled to any allowances after I lost Neil. I’m living in the mobile home that he left me, but my pension only gives me £720 a month.”

After food, bills and council tax are accounted for, there is no spending money left. Brown has to pay for a car because the local bus service is limited. “I’m quite lucky because I’m fit, apart from a bit of arthritis, but I don’t know how long that will last for,” she says. She worries that rising fuel bills could leave her unable to afford food.

Although she would like to be more financially secure and feels the government should be doing more to support people, she enjoys her job. “I mostly clean the tables and do the washing up, among other duties. It’s a nice place to work and I enjoy being around people.” She also gets a hot meal on every shift, which helps to drive down the food and cooking energy bills. “I’ve always thrown myself into work, but now it’s keeping me alive too.”

Stories like Brown’s are so common that they have inspired the phrase “the great unretirement”. New figures from the Center for Aging Better show that the number of people aged 65 or over entering the workforce rose by 173,000 in the first quarter of 2022. “This increase marks a big jump, after the pandemic put a huge dent in the number of people working in their 50s, 60s and beyond,” says Kim Chaplain, a specialist adviser for work at the organisation. “Although we don’t know the full reasons behind each person’s decision, we suspect the rising cost of living is playing a role.”

According to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funded by the centre, the rise in the state pension age from 65 to 66 led to a big increase in the number of people working at 65, and an even bigger increase in the number of 65 -year-olds living in absolute poverty. “People who are already in a decent job are able to hang on for another year – but for many who can’t access work, another year without the state pension just means another year trying to get by on inadequate working-age benefits,” said Chaplain.

Ian Dempsey, an independent financial adviser and pensions expert, says the looming financial crisis will have a significant impact on his clients. “Many people are fearful about when they will be able to retire. Rather than increasing pension contributions, they are having to reduce them, which is going to have a knock-on effect.”

Data from the financial services company Canada Life backs his observations, suggesting that one in five people are reducing pension contributions, with a one-year break costing savers up to 4% of their total fund. “Retirement is a very different concept now. You don’t stop any more at 65 and put your feet up. It gets to the point where people work as long as their health permits, and only retire if they physically can’t work,” adds Dempsey.

Final-salary pensions, which provided a guaranteed income for life based on your final salary, are largely a thing of the past in the private sector. Instead individuals have become responsible for managing their own retirement savings. “Money is still a huge taboo in this country and people don’t get the right financial advice and education on how to make the most of our savings,” says Dempsey. “People are often ashamed of their financial situation, too, especially if they have been in debt or faced financial problems for any reason. We need to normalise these situations and talk about them openly.”

‘It’s hard to have knockback after knockback’ … ageism in the job market can begin as early as 55. Photograph: Johner Images/Getty Images/Johner RF

Bernadette Hempstead, who is in her early 70s, from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, felt embarrassed about her low income before she recently started a part-time job as a showroom floor assistant. In addition to helping towards bills, the extra money is building her confidence and financial security after a period of homelessness. “When the owner of the property I was renting died, I was sent an eviction notice by her son,” she says. “I spent nine months living between the homes of various family members, as well as hostels, before I was finally able to move into a one-bedroom assisted-living flat in June.”

After retiring at 64 from office jobs in human resources, she began to receive a small private pension in addition to her state pension. Those two pensions are n’t enough now to cover her expenses. “Even before the crisis I was just existing, not living,” she says. “As things get more expensive, it became impossible. I had also wiped out a lot of my savings during the period I was homeless.”

The job has given Hempstead a new lease of life, and she is grateful that she can work. “Living in hostels showed me how many people aren’t well enough to work. It has allowed me to start buying small luxuries again. I bought some shoes in the sales this week. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything new.”

Before securing the job, she found it difficult to be honest with others about her financial situation. “You can’t even start to imagine what it’s like. I would always say I didn’t like things when I was out shopping with friends, or that I wasn’t hungry when we went for lunch,” she says. “In reality, I couldn’t afford to do these things. Now, I can enjoy a meal or a coffee, and put oil in the car without worrying.”

Though some older people benefited from lower house prices and higher savings rates before the 2008 recession, Hempstead’s story illustrates that this isn’t the case for everyone. The Center for Aging Better believes the crisis will be especially difficult for those who have made fragmented pension contributions in the past, due to disability, illness or taking time off for childcare. “There are plenty of people who stay in and return to work because they want to stay active. We are concerned about those with disabilities and health conditions who might push themselves into unsuitable work rather than try to survive on benefits,” says Chaplain.

It can be difficult to access support to return to work if you are not claiming universal credit, she says: “Our research shows there is a big stigma around this, and accessing government services generally, among this age group. Some find the system complex and difficult to navigate – and so avoid these routes to support altogether.”

Getting back into paid work after a long break is difficult for other reasons, too, including age discrimination. Tony, 78, from Southampton, believes he has faced ageism in his search for a job. “I was a delivery driver with Royal Mail until I was 65. I didn’t want to leave, but I was made to retire,” he says. Since then he has kept himself busy with voluntary roles, most recently as a befriender for Age UK, where he mainly supports veterans.

He is looking for a job to pay for the petrol, so that he can continue doing the voluntary work he loves. “I want to be part-time because I have grandparent duties so that our kids can get to work,” he says. “But as soon as you mention that you are 78 years old, the jobs market suddenly goes cold. I got into an agency but now I’m being inundated with 100 emails a day for jobs that aren’t related to what I need. I find it frustrating.”

Although Tony has worked all his life, his pension isn’t huge. “I was going to join the army when I was young but I developed tuberculosis,” he says. He made a full recovery and joined the Territorial Army six years later, but that did not entitle him to an army pension. “I was only at Royal Mail for 10 years so didn’t have time to build up a big pot, but I always landed on my feet.” At the moment, Tony is extremely fit and healthy for his age, and keen to find driving or warehouse work. “I have dyspraxia and dyslexia so an office job isn’t for me. I really want something where I can stay active.”

Stuart Lewis, the founder and CEO of Rest Less, a digital community that supports the over-50s, says ageism in the workplace begins at the age of 55, and gets steadily worse as people get older. “We often talk about it as the last acceptable form of prejudice,” he says. Though demand for certain areas of work, including care, HGV driving and professional services, remain fairly high, those without specialist skills face barriers. “It’s hard to have knockback after knockback, so we always recommend taking time for self-care so you can approach interviews in a positive way. We also suggest taking your age off your CV, as well as education and early work experience dates. It’s not relevant and means people can instantly age you.”

While Moore, Hempstead and Brown have relied on traditional routes to find paid work, others are seeking creative ways to make extra money and sidestep ageism. Dorothy (not her real name), 67, is renting out rooms in her Twickenham home to people working in the film industry. “I am essentially a chambermaid for people who stay,” she says. “I am lucky to own my home and have two rooms I can rent out. We are close to several studios, so it’s a popular location for people to stay. I am washing sheets and towels, and making sure the rooms are clean and tidy for each new arrival.” She retired after she was put on furlough from her job at Costco at the start of the pandemic, but she is now enjoying the extra income her side hustle brings.

“When you retire, you are pretty much on a fixed income, so you need to be much more careful with money,” she says. “I have stopped going to the hairdresser and getting my nails done, which I used to love.” She admits that it is worrying to have to think about things that should be affordable. “I used to make a good living through a curtain business but that’s hard, physical work and each decade you get weaker. I feel I should be able to sit back and enjoy life a little bit, but I am scared of the mounting bills.”

Where's the naughty list?  Mike Facherty as Father Christmas.
Where’s the naughty list? Mike Facherty as Father Christmas. Photograph: Courtesy of Mike Facherty

Mike Facherty, 71, from Reading, enjoyed a successful career in IT until he retired 12 years ago. Despite a generous pension and owning his home, he is struggling to keep up with rising costs. He runs storytelling events at local schools to cover the bills. “Since retiring, I’ve done odd bits of acting work and have had regular gigs as Father Christmas at a grotto in Bracknell,” he says. But the seasonal work is no longer enough to cover everything. “I want to pay for bills but also the odd luxury. We don’t go out for dinner much or have foreign holidays, but sometimes we like a takeaway.”

Luckily, Facherty loves what he does. “It helps children to develop literacy skills, self-confidence and empathy, which is really rewarding, as well as bringing in extra money.” But for many of his friends and acquaintances, the situation is less bright. “I think a lot of people are embarrassed that they are having to return to work, so they won’t talk about it. But it’s happening everywhere,” he says.

As the cost of living bites, Lewis’s biggest concerns are for older people who don’t own property and don’t have substantial pension pots. “The state pension rose by 3% this year, which was nowhere near in line with the 9% inflation rise at the time,” he says. With ONS data already showing a nine-year gap in life expectancy and an 18-year gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least affluent groups, inequality could worsen if steps aren’t taken to protect those on lower incomes.

“Although many people return to work because it improves their wellbeing, others have no choice,” says Lewis. “People who need support can no longer rely on the government and it erodes confidence. After working their whole lives, people don’t know if they will be entitled to help.”