Is 50 the new 60?

You've got the key: now what?

Local councils are currently shedding jobs at a rate unheard of in the last twenty years or so. This has a number of unintended consequences.

Not least of which is illustrated by an e-mail I received last week.

Dear team,

As part of the current restructure today I need to announce that xxx will be retiring as the head of xxx. I am sure you will want to join with me in wishing him well and congratulating him on his 20/30/35 years service to local government and in particular xxx council.

A replacement will be found either internally, as part of the restructure or externally.

This was the third e-mail of this type that I have received this month and doubtless there will be more to come. All of those who are leaving are heads of service with lots of experience of local government. All are over 50 but, I think, well before standard retirement age (I am way too polite to ask them how old they actually are). Certainly, there was no hint of them preparing for retirement in advance of the restructure taking place.

So why does this matter?

I’m pretty sure there are voices within the council who are seeing this change as the clearing out of space for younger, and dare I say, more dynamic managers to take over. However, there are a number of concerns I have about this sudden rush to clear out the over 50s.

Firstly, this is not a cheap way of moving on. The local government pension scheme can barely cope with staff retiring at the age of 60 let alone 55; especially for managers who are at a fairly senior level and therefore ready to earn a substantial final salary payment. However, this is a small point.

Secondly, and much more importantly, we are in the process of getting rid of an awful lot of institutional knowledge. These staff, be they dynamic or not, know an awful lot about their areas of work and usually have been in the authority long enough that they know where the proverbial bodies are buried. Who else will be able to say to the young whipper-snapper; ‘be careful about that, we tried it five years ago and this what went wrong’. And who will be able to use decades of experience to navigate an important policy decision through the council?

Like it or not, experience is not something to ignore and as councils we seem to be getting rid of a lot of it fairly quickly.

What will replace it? There will be some internal promotions but I think a lot of councils are looking for bright new talent to come from outside the organisation; either from other councils or from the private sector. However, will there be enough talent available if collectively we’ve pensioned off a lot of senior managers? And, will a reliance on people from outside the organisation lead to a year or two where we all collectively struggle to find our feet?

I can understand why the senior managers are comfortable taking their pensions early. Many will be back on a temporary or contract basis and others will enjoy their retirement but I do worry for local government as a whole which has possibly just lost all the experience and knowledge that 30 years in local government builds up.

I don’t think we value experience and built up knowledge enough. The next few years will certainly test my theory.

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5 Comments on “Is 50 the new 60?”

  1. Tom Phillips Says:

    Quite rare for me to disagree with you, but I do on this one, a bit.

    I am a local govt officer with 38 years service. I started early, and I am approaching max pension accrual, but have about three years still to work. I want to go. I have my marbles and my health, but I have had enough and would prefer to see out my working years doing stuff in a voluntary or other capacity. Trouble is, I cannot afford to walk away, and I am not being allowed to go. My job is not at risk, and no one is being allowed to volunteer to go (at least, not yet). The are no packages on offer, so I must stay.

    This is my 12th major reorg in local gov. They announced the 1974 changes after A week after I started work, and they have measured my career since then. i’m a survivor, but would be happy to be out now. it saddens me to see far younger colleagues with potentially good careers ahead of them really worrying about the future of their job/team/family etc, and angers me that changes are measured by short term budget considerations and not longer term lifetime investment.

    Easy to say that after 38 years one has gathered a load of experience that could be lost. I’d say yes, but what was it experience of? I’ve learned to do many jobs that simply are no longer needed. I have some skills that are completely superceded bu the modern world. I pride myself on keeping my skill set and my attitudes fresh, but I think it is easy to exaggerate what organisations lose if they lose people like me, compared to what they lose when they give away a younger, developing person.

    They lose energy, for a start. Whatever else I have retained, it’s not energy or enthusiasm any more. I don’t see things through fresh eyes, I often see them through a filter that says “have we been here before, and what did we do then?” Not always what is needed.

    I could go on, but I hope you get my drift. Organisations are very capable of regenerating to meet the new world. They need to be able to shed old skin to be able to do so. They can atrophy and suffocate if they cannot do so, yet occasionally that old skin blinds them to that fact.

  2. John Says:

    Hi, some good points about loss of expertise. Just one minor quibble.

    Your comment about the cost to the pension scheme is sligtly wrong. If people are made redundant or otherwise leave for economic reasons they can in certain circumstances be paid their pension without the usual deduction for leaving before their 65th birthday (usually about 8% less for each year under 65). Cruically however this extra cost (known in our area as ‘Pension Strain’) to the scheme must be paid by the employer, as a lump sum, to the LGPS to fund the extra pension payments.

  3. tomsprints Says:


    You are right on the technicality. My own point was that the attitude towards paying that lump sum is very limited. It is just seen as an unwanted or “impossible” spending item with no attention whatsoever being given to the lifetime benefit equation for paying it and retaining younger staff. It makes young, valuable staff with a future “cheap” to shed, and traps the likes of me long after our real sell-by dates. I believe it also creates a “keep your head down and nose clean, and see out your days like a good boy” culture.


  4. Ed Hammond Says:

    Loss of expertise is a big issue – I think experience gives you an element of perspective, certainly on changes like this. When people are keen to go – like Tom Philips – then of course they should be free to, but I dislike the idea of older people being winkled out, for whatever reason.

    You’ll find replacements from the public sector who might be able to bring a new outlook but they won’t have the local knowledge that is absolutely crucial to minimising the impact of these kinds of change of local people. As for the private sector, for the senior jobs we are talking about, I can’t see many people taking the 65% pay cut that this would involve, plus the additional job insecurity over the next two years or so.

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