Unretirement: It’s Time to Rethink Age in the Workplace

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Unretirement: It’s Time to Rethink Age in the Workplace

Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders. 

Why are companies forgetting their older workers? In this episode of All About HR season 2, we sit down with Victoria Tomlinson — CEO @ Next-Up — to discuss how HR can rethink age in the workplace to support their employees before and after retirement. 

Victoria is a TEDx speaker and pioneering voice in the field of unretirement. Her company helps firms and employees approach pre-retirement with confidence.

In this video, we’ll discuss: 

  • The generation of wasted talent
  • How to include age diversity in your DEIB strategy
  • What matters most to people who are unretiring

Watch the full episode to discover what organizations can do to overcome skill shortages and utilize all their talent!


Related (free) resource ahead! Continue reading below ↓

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Victoria Tomlinson: But if you’re going to live for 100 years, which is very normal now, people can be retired for longer than they’ve worked. And that’s quite a shock when we talk about that. And what we’re saying is don’t just think about this as filling a bit of time. They need to think about purpose, then, if they do retire. So what employees can do now is to think about helping people to talk about what they want to do next. 

Neelie Verlinden: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a brand new episode of All About HR. My name is Neelie, I’m your host. And for today’s episode, I got to sit down with Victoria Tomlinson. Victoria is the CEO and founder of Next Up, and our conversation was all about unretirement and the generation of wasted talent. Now, this is a topic that I am personally super excited about. So I cannot wait to share it with you. But before we dive right into that conversation, as always, if you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe to our channel, hit that notification bell, and like this video. Enjoy. 

Neelie Verlinden: Welcome to another episode of All About HR. 

Neelie Verlinden: Now, Victoria, let me welcome you to the show. How are you?

Victoria Tomlinson: I’m good. But I really wanted to interview you, to be honest, because I love the fact that you’re young and that you’re passionate about this subject. And I really want to know why. But anyway, we’re here. So thank you for asking me.

Neelie Verlinden: You’re very welcome. Victoria, before we get to the topic that we are going to talk about, perhaps you can tell our audience a little bit more about yourself and also about Next Up and what you’re doing.

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Victoria Tomlinson: Okay, so I never once cared about age, but it all becomes quite irrelevant. So I start by saying it’s a bit like starting an AAA meeting. I’m Victoria Tomlinson, and I’m Chief Executive at Next Up, and I’m 67. And I want to work for another 30 years if God allows me to. I’ve forgotten long careers. I’m not going to bore you with that. I started in manufacturing, I used to travel the world for a banknote printer. I was with EY and on the leadership team in London. And then, I founded a PR Marketing company and it became a digital business. And out of that, three, four years ago, I launched Next Up to help people coming up to retirement. And we could talk a bit more because I suddenly found people who wanted to use their skills and they were really struggling. And I realized we talk about retirement as if it’s this sort of joyous TV ad skipping on a beach in a sunny something or whatever. And actually is an extremely difficult time, and we are wasting the talents of people. 

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, yeah. And that is a very, very nice bridge, actually, Victoria, to the very reason that I invited you on the podcast, really. But for our audience, I will give a little bit of context. So earlier this year, Victoria gave a TED talk called “A generation of wasted talent”. And yeah, as I said, that was the reason that I reached out to Victoria because I feel that this really is a topic that we don’t talk about enough. And that can also have a tremendously positive impact on the world of work. But let’s take a step back. Let’s start at the beginning. And Victoria, maybe you can tell us in a few words. Yeah, what was your talk about?

Victoria Tomlinson: Well, it was this bit about people today retiring. And they are desperate to use their skills in new ways when they leave at old companies or whatever. And I discovered that they’re quite lost. There’s a real mental health problem going on. And nobody’s talking about it. And it started because I was meeting people who were quite senior, and they had hated LinkedIn. And then suddenly they realized that when you’re on your own, we don’t have telephone directories anymore. How does anyone know who you are, what you’re doing, or where you are? They’re coming to me to help them with LinkedIn, with a CV, with introductions. And they had expected there just to be a world of opportunities. They had all their careers, had people coming to them, and they felt a personal failure. And what I realized was that people are having a difficult time, but nobody’s really talking about it. It’s such a difficult time. No one’s really admitting to this, or not to themselves, how tough it is. And they can say, Oh, I’m retired. I’m looking after my grandchildren. I have lots of time for lunch. But when you got under that and heard the real stories, it was really, it was not happy. And I think we haven’t got to terms with this 100-year life and what it really means for everybody, individuals, employers, society, everyone.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. And I am going to touch on that later on. Because we are going to make this very tangible, and we’re going to look at what each and every one of us can do in that regard. And also society as a whole. But before we get there, Victoria, I know that in your TED talk, you were also saying that you did some research. And you found that skills aren’t really used and recognized for 75% of people over 50. And you also found that 87% of companies aren’t investing in advanced IT skills for people over 50. Now, why do you believe that companies are kind of well, let’s say, forgetting this part of their workforce?

Victoria Tomlinson: I think there’s quite a complicated reason. But I’m going to simplify what I think because it was a really good question that you asked me in a different way nearly. And what I think it started with was just going back to this sort of tech issue, to some extent, where I used to have my own business, I mentioned it was PR, digital, etc. And I spent a lot of time trying to get business leaders to own social media. There are huge opportunities they didn’t understand, but also huge risks. And they weren’t involved. And what they allowed to happen was that the younger generation came in, they didn’t have the skills really that they needed on social media, but losses or go, oh, they understand tech, which is huge. And you can’t when you’re 1920 understand tech, or social media, I’m honest. And they allowed people to disassociate from technology. And it became okay to say, Oh, I don’t do tech. It was almost a sort of brand. Whoa, you know, I’m so wonderful and wise and old. I wouldn’t get into this awful social media, into technology, into whatever. So it’s become acceptable for the older generation not to get into tech, and employers didn’t invest in the technology. I mean, this was a shocking finding. And when I found it, it was construction companies. And 87% said it wasn’t necessary to invest in advanced IT skills of the 50-plus generation, but just up a minute, that’s a generation that is managing and supervising the younger people. They’re making the business case and the investment. And no wonder we don’t use technology properly. Because if they had trained those people in advance IT, they would then have thought, we need to rethink how we do this work, we need to rethink. We don’t need people here. We should be redoing everything instead of which we get technology coming in, adding on and to existing rather than really using that opportunity. So I think the problem has really become that. Obviously, if you’re not investing in those IT skills, employers are seeing them as not relevant anymore because they don’t understand tech, etc. And it’s been seen as a kind of Deadwood, if you like, that the few people who do own and take their own training into their hand, it’s fine. But as a workforce, people are being seen as not relevant, not useful, not engaged, etc. And then you don’t use them, and you don’t use their opportunities, and you don’t invest. And it’s all a vicious circle.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned at the start of our conversation, I really believe, and I assume you do, too, because otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing, that there lies a huge opportunity here for both people who are soon to be retired or already retired, as well as organizations who are struggling to find good people, I would really like to talk for a minute about how we can rethink age and retirement. Starting with what can employers do in this regard?

Victoria Tomlinson: What is interesting is that I’ve got two parts to our business. And we’re kind of at the cutting edge, it’s quite hard to sell, to be honest, because it’s all new. But once employers get it, it’s amazing what happens. So we’re working with professional firms and senior people running workshops for them. And actually, what happens is people have this whole retirement problem. It is a real issue in companies. Nobody wants to talk about the hour, they won’t even talk about retirement. So we’ve got age discrimination legislation now, which makes it harder to open up and discuss your plans for the future. So employers are tied in knots, and I get that, you know, it’s not an easy landscape for them. I think that’s part is key. People think, oh, you’ve been really loyal. You’ve given us 20, 30, whatever years. That’s just let you glide into and, you know, and have a happy retirement when the individual is going through stacks of emotions. And what’s happening with the workshops is people are going, do you know, I had somebody say, after the workshop, do you know, I haven’t even told my wife or my secretary that I’m here because I don’t want to talk about the R-word at all. And he said, now I realize that’s ridiculous. I need to talk about it. I need to plan. I need to do succession planning and help. I need to start thinking about my future. And you sort of think, what have we just unlocked there for the employer? And he’s saying, I’ve suddenly realized I’ve got a whole future that I could do all sorts of things. Whereas I thought I was just gonna think about a couple of years as I do this and that. But if you’re going to live for 100 years, which is very normal now, people can be retired for longer than they’ve worked. And that’s quite a shock when we talk about that. And what we’re saying is don’t just think about this as filling a bit of time. But really think about it, and for some people, they want to retire. And we’re not trying to stop people. If they do, they need to think about purpose, then. So what employees can do now is to think about helping people to talk about what they want to do next. They invest heavily in the early years of their careers. They invest almost nothing at the end of people’s careers, you know, not just in tech, but in all sorts of things. So I think, first of all, if they were to put age into their diversity, their DNI strategy, and started dicing the stats by age, a whole bunch of things would come out. It would come out that employees are not engaged at this age. They don’t feel their skills are used. And they would then start thinking about what we are doing wrong and have discussions and expect more of people. And if preparing people for retirement – who can hardly imagine how to better use that word – then they can also think about what else they could be doing now that would help them in the future and add value to the organization now. So, for instance, we’re trying to get people looking at every company that has ESG initiatives, you know, zero carbon, target emission targets, and things like more women into leadership positions recruiting from more diverse pools, I could go on. Now, this would be a great thing for people to get involved in before they leave to start adding to what they’re doing. They would add huge value because a lot of this is people skills and relationship skills, and they would then be getting something new that’s topical and relevant once they’ve left that they might want to continue on in another way. So I think the other bit that’s happened is that employers, for the nicest reasons, don’t want to bother their employees once they’ve left who, you know, let them enjoy retirement, not understanding, they would love to be bothered. And actually, what they should be doing is working together to say, look, what would you like to do for the future? And how could we use your skills in the organization?

Neelie Verlinden: Something that I was thinking of when I was preparing for our podcast today is that people unretiring. I can also see organizations don’t think, okay, but what would that mean, you know, for instance, for our succession, for our talent succession plans? But I think something that we should perhaps make clear here is that unretiring doesn’t necessarily mean that people are just going to stay longer in the role that they’re actually in at the moment, right? That’s how I understand it, anyhow.

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Victoria Tomlinson: Yeah, no, no, no, you’re absolutely right. Yes. So if I explain what we see, as unretirement, it’s quite hard, this language. There isn’t a vocabulary around for that at all. So what we’re saying is you’ve left your full-time work, you don’t want another full-time job in that kind of climbing that career ladder, climbing whatever pole, but what you want to do is use your skills probably in new ways. You know, we’re working with lawyers. Most of them, in fact, I think all of them, nobody wants to be a lawyer still. But what we’re looking at is all those skills that they’ve acquired through their career. And most of it has nothing to do with the law, actually. It’s about managing people. It’s about building relationships, it’s all sorts of things there and expertise. So it’s actually how they use those skills at this next stage. And what most people want is they don’t want that 24/7 lifestyle. That’s what kills most people in terms of enjoying their job. It’s the planes at three o’clock in the morning, it’s on the trains, it is endless meetings, that kind of hamster wheel. They don’t want that anymore. Let me explain what we’ve done. We’ve been getting unretired people to mentor tech entrepreneurs. And it was me slightly being sneaky to get them into tech without them kind of realizing. And initially, people go, Oh, I put your tech in it with that title thing. Oh, I can’t do tech. And I’ve said don’t worry, these younger generations, they know all the tech they need, don’t worry. What they miss are things like people skills. We’ve done some sessions where I went around the room have a mentoring session going on. And I could hear the older generation going, I’m sorry, just can you explain your business again? I don’t understand it. And I thought actually, and the younger ones were going, this is brilliant because I’ve only been talking to people in my own bubble, if you like, who understand. And actually, if I’m going to get out funding, I’m going out for funding, I’m going to have to explain to white middle-aged men and women or whatever, and they don’t understand this. So I’m going to have to rethink how I explain it. So that’s a classic example there of what the older generation can bring to the youngest. And very often, there were a lot of people issues that they had. And as soon as I remember, one can say, as soon as I started telling at a table, and it was a session there, she said, when I started to explain my problem, I could see in all your eyes, you knew exactly what the problem was. And she said I’ve been struggling for months with this. And what the problem was, I won’t go into details, but she was a different timescale. And she did everything by email. And she said it always worked well in London when she was there or in New York. But she said, it’s not working and all the other. It’s because she needed to talk to people. It was really obvious what was happening. Yeah. So I think it’s such a lot that the older generation can offer, and we don’t we are wasting that experience.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I mean, I 100% agree. And in that regard, that was something else I was thinking, Victoria, it’s also that in that regard, perhaps yet, the gig work to be really could be working really well or not.

Victoria Tomlinson: There’s a lot of gig work where people are not well treated. Let’s just say it like that. And actually what people care about at this stage, to be honest, a lot of people retiring at the moment, the money is not the top priority for them. Yes, they might like, and particularly with the current cost of living issues, yes, they may want more money, they may need more money. But actually, what’s more important to them at this stage is feeling valued and treated well. And they have got choices. And we’ve got this big thing going on about the older generation who don’t want to carry on working or come back to the workforce. And it’s because they have choices now. And employers need to think about what motivates them. And this is all about feeling that you’re being valued and respected. And that you’re adding value here, so people don’t just want to come into an office and be given a whole pile of something and never talk to anybody in a corner or whatever, that is not going to turn it on for the older generation. I’m generalizing here because for some people, they may need the money and that will be fine. You know, that will do. But I’m thinking about it generally and it doesn’t really matter. I have been initially working with senior people, but I’m now beginning to realize the firemen, policemen, nurses, you know, it’s people who have been administrators, receptionists, man, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been. The issues are really, very across the whole board. They’re the same.

Neelie Verlinden: And so you’d briefly mentioned them here, some people, they do not want to continue to work. But so and again, yeah, this would be generalizing a little bit, I guess. But what is inhibiting these people from wanting to return to the workforce?

Victoria Tomlinson: To be honest, once people have left that full-time work, they need a bit of time to readjust mentally. But what has happened, what I’m seeing now, so we’ve just had Caroline, who’s an associate of us, do a blog. She took on a trustee role for a charity, it’s a hospice. And she was there for a couple of years. And she suddenly realized this was more rewarding to her than her paid job. So she wasn’t being paid for this new role. And she said it was the turning point when she realized I’m getting more out of this voluntary role than I am from work. She said I was learning massively. So she said it was very complex. She was learning about the issues of helping people at this stage of life, their families, about funding, and what care they need. She said it was extremely challenging, you know, getting funding and things is really hard. But she said, I really felt I could add value to them. And I felt personally rewarded. So it wasn’t about the money at all. And I’m seeing this time and again. I’m not saying that money doesn’t matter because of course, it does. And she said you don’t spend as much when you’re retired. You know, the clothes, the parking, the travel that you’re there, the lunches, the prep lunches, and the coffees that you pick up. She said it’s amazing what you waste with what you don’t need. And she said, and she would be typical of a lot of people I see when they say once you’ve got over that initial status problem. Yes, it is to start with it. You know, people say one minute I was kind of god up here. And then the next day, who am I? Nobody. So that is a shock to people. But once they’ve got over that bit of it, well, then status doesn’t really matter so much anymore. And we ask people what matters to you at this next stage is to do a questionnaire before our workshops. And we ask them status or money or feeling useful and relevant. It’s always feeling useful and relevant. A few people put money or status. It is very few. Yeah, of course, one or two people go yes. I’m glad about that. And that’s fine. But very few really matter about that.

Neelie Verlinden: But this is actually really great to hear. I think Victoria that what matters most is feeling useful and valued. Now, I have mentioned this a couple of times already. But let’s talk for a bit about what practical things we can do. Let’s start big, and, you know, narrow down, so first of all, I think society has contributed to how we are thinking of people who are retiring or already retired. So let’s start with that one. So what are your thoughts on that?

Victoria Tomlinson: So my piece of change advice would be to think of somebody who’s 60, or 70, as if they were 30 or 40. So expect more of them. Think of them as being hugely able and capable and contributing. Society generally has got to stop seeing an aging population as a problem. And they’ve got to start thinking of them as the opportunity, of course, a huge number of issues around an aging population. But you know what, people when they’re retiring at 50 or 60, they actually have got another 20 or so years of really valuable contribution. And the more that we keep them active, the less they will become lonely, isolated in nursing homes, and retirement itself, I realized, so many medical people say, you aged 10 years, within two years of retiring, if you’re not actively involved, and you become mentally and physically ill. So we are creating this problem of aging by not using the skills. So there’s a massive issue here. So I think what we can do is rethink how we think about people. And I would suggest everybody should go and talk to somebody who retired in recent times, and understand what it really like, really get to understand that, and then think, what could we have done as an employer? As somebody’s friend or family, what could we have done differently?

Neelie Verlinden: How would you say companies can get started straight away? What have you and the companies that you are working with, what have you seen them do?

Victoria Tomlinson: So as I say, I only launched Next Up just over, coming up to four years ago. And, of course, COVID hit everything, so this was not a priority for most people, yeah. But so what we’re trying to do is we’re starting conversations, we’re actually doing a lot of things. We’ve created an online platform. And I would love to work with employers to get people to test it. We’ve got some amazing names here. But it’s all slow. You know, I haven’t got all the evidence, I know what’s going to work, but I haven’t necessarily got proof. But what I think they can do is come and talk to us, first of all, we would love to help and to see what we can do. And this doesn’t have to be expensive. The return is going to be 10 times more than any investment. It is really small. I was talking to a colleague yesterday. And he said, Oh my god, I love this. He said we’ve got a skills shortage, people retiring. I said, well, what conversations do you have with people before they retire? Silence. I said, well, that’s the first place to start. And I said, look, let’s work with a pilot group. And let’s, first of all, have those conversations. They can solve their own problems here, they can solve your skills crisis to some extent, and all the rest. So the second thing is to put age as part of your D&I strategy and measurements. And when you start looking at the figures by age, you will be shocked. And there are the obvious things that you could be doing. I think, also, you know, the big firms and the kind of global names like McKinsey’s have huge alumni groups. And it all sounds a bit grand and kind of very historic senior, whatever. But actually, you know, when I started my career all those years ago, I was in manufacturing, they used to have a clubs, kind of like a working men’s club that they used to have, where people could come back and play snooker and have a beer and whatever because they were missing the men. And it strikes me that we’ve stopped this kind of community bit they used to go on. And I know that ICI, somebody I’ve worked with, her husband had a role for ICI, and he goes and sees, I think he might still do it. He goes to see people who have retired every year to check whether they’re okay, and whatever. Now, that’s all a bit paternalistic. It’s kind of rather old-fashioned, it’s okay. But actually, what we need is the modern version of that, which is creating groups and sort of societies that are supportive that continue on, but also that the employees could call on to say, we’ve got this big project, who’d like to get involved? And I think that they would do it for free. Now, I talked to a big bank about this. And they said, the trouble is, if you do things for free, then those skills aren’t valued, and there is something behind that. So it’s a question of finding these people who would do it for free. But you’ve got to find a way that they’re then valued and appreciated by other employees who are being paid, and you’ve got to make sure that they don’t feel that their jobs are being taken because people are doing it for free. It’s a question of how do they add value to what you’re doing. And as I said, I wish I had more examples. I’ve got lots of compensation as employers who are so interested, but it’s all just beginning. And it’s very slow. So I would love anybody to come and talk, and let’s get the pilots in the evidence of all of this.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. But I do think that that will happen. And I think it will continue to happen more and more, Victoria. Also, what I always like to ask every guest, Victoria, is what they believe is the biggest cliche about HR. 

Victoria Tomlinson: I’m hesitating to say this because I want to make friends with HR. But I think the biggest cliche is that they’re not business people. And I say that in the widest sense. And therefore they don’t look at things with the business head. I did a talk last year, and I was talking about the whole D&I and things. And I think there are a lot of issues, we can have another discussion about what’s happening with people talking about helping women. Now I was clear, pioneering woman, I was very far ahead as the first woman in all sorts of things, the only woman at the leadership table or the rest of it. But somebody said HR isn’t there for the people, it’s there for the company. This was an asset management business leader. And I have been working. You’re nodding, Neelie, I can’t understand the business is the people. That’s what we always say, anyway. I don’t get this. So I am kind of left a bit…I don’t know what the word is. But I kind of don’t understand that. So for me, the biggest cliche, I’m sure it isn’t right. But it is about the need to be more business engaged, that that would be my, and you meet some who are super, super engaged and fantastic, and they really understand their business. But that would be my cliche.

Neelie Verlinden: Thank you very much. And then there’s another thing that I always like to ask Victoria. And that is if you would like to share an epic win and an epic fail with us. Now, it just can be anything. It can be something personal, it can be something professional, and it can be a combination of both. But yeah, so is there anything that comes to mind?

Victoria Tomlinson: Yes. So clearly, you know, I’m very excited about this business. You can probably tell. I’m passionate about what we’re doing. And I don’t feel like an old woman at all. So I’m still excited about what we’re doing hugely. So the epic win was when we started winning workshops from the Big Four magic circle. I was like a child in terms of, oh my god, we’ve done it, you know, and kind of incredible in that market. It is huge to me, and I’m childish about it with excitement about, you know, anybody starting a business, it doesn’t matter what age, you still got it in you. Yeah, we’re making a difference. And the epic fail on the other side. I know we were talking about this. It is really interesting. So I started this business because people were being sent to me, very senior people who needed help. And I’ve got this business helping individuals. And so we launched. I can’t tell you how many people said, you wouldn’t make it work with individuals necessarily. You know, as a bit smug, maybe, we’ve got the evidence. They’re coming to us. I’ve had dozens of people completely fail. And what was interesting, when we went out to market, we bore in mind how many females are our percentage of that senior market. 95% of the people who were paying us to help them were women. That was extraordinary, I know. Your face. I couldn’t believe it. So that was my failure, thinking that I could make this work for individuals. The men, I think they think: I can do it. So a bit of pride there, I don’t need help, etc. The women just go, I need help, get on. Let’s have fun and get a job. So we had to flip the business and said, that’s why we’re there working with corporates, and I think actually, we can make far more impact this way. I’m really pleased that it worked out that way, if I’m honest, because I think the impact through organizations and society that we can do this way is huge. Whereas I don’t think we’d have achieved the same way of working with individuals. We work with individuals if they come to us, but it’s not the core part of what we do anymore.

Neelie Verlinden: Okay, Victoria, thank you so much for joining me for this episode. It was, yeah, it was such a pleasure. I mean, it was hard for me to basically, you know, keep things short, because this is really something that I could talk to talk about for hours. But I have one last question for you though. So there’s hopefully a lot of people in the audience that now want to reach out to you because they want to hear more about this and they want to see what they can start doing in their own organization and their own HR departments. So, where can people best reach out to you?

Victoria Tomlinson: Okay, so I am, of course, on LinkedIn, and you wouldn’t expect anything else. But also, www.next-up.com. Don’t forget the hyphen is what we say. We have a podcast sharing stories about this time, but now and again, we interview people in this market. Perhaps we could do a mutual share sometimes. 

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I would be very, very happy to join you, Victoria. Yeah, it would be fantastic. Yeah, thank you so much. And thank you, everybody, for tuning in to today’s episode. I really do hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you want to reach out to Victoria Next up, please do so. And before you go, if you haven’t done so yet, subscribe to the channel. Hit that notification bell and like this video. Thank you so much, and see you again soon for another episode of All About HR.

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