You don't have to exile yourself to the potting shed when you reach 50. More and more people are discovering that their services are required long after that – or even returning to work after finding retirement isn't for them. Elaine Knutt reports on the triumph of the third age
There is good news for anyone who has ever looked the other way when the topic of age came up. In the early 1990s, it felt as if anyone over 50 was marked as next month's redundancy victim. But today, skills shortages and an ageing workforce are extending working lives beyond what would have been expected 10 years ago.

Human resources managers and recruitment consultants agree that age is far less critical than it was five years ago. "If applicants have got the right background and experience, the last thing that worries me is age," says Jeremy Addison, human resources manager at consulting engineer WSP. And at contractor Kier, personnel manager Brian Parker says the firm seeks out older site managers to pair with younger, university-educated colleagues. "It can be a wonderful combination," he says.

"Employers can't afford to be choosy. If they are, they're deselecting a large section of the market," adds Nick Sohail, director of recruitment consultant Eden Brown. For the past two years, the firm has been guiding its clients towards recruiting on skills and competencies rather than age, and advising them to omit references to age on adverts and application forms. So far, it has encountered little resistance.

Sohail attributes this success to a mixture of economic reality and the prospect of equal opportunities legislation. In 2006, discrimination on the grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation is due to become illegal. Employers that make recruitment, promotion or training decisions based on age rather than ability will find themselves exposed to unlimited compensation claims. "Employers should raise their game and tackle it now so that they're ahead," says Dianah Worman, an adviser on diversity and equality at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

The idea of an extension on your personal sell-by date may not be welcomed by anyone counting the months to the golf course or potting shed. But often over-50s have dependent children, an unimpressive pension or a taste for travel that does not sit happily with early retirement. So, if you're thinking of a new lease of professional life, what sort of welcome can you expect in the working world?

It's fair to say that there is some residual resistance. Worman thinks that older workers should be aware of the negative stereotypes so that they are ready with counter-arguments. Often, the problem is the mistaken idea that anyone over 55 is a more expensive employee. She says: "Employers think that salaries, perks and pensions will be more costly, or that they will invest in training without getting the long-term benefits."

But employers still gain from the additional experience "capital" in the company, and salaries are often less crucial near the end of a career. Also, research into sick leave shows that, overall, absence rates for younger and older workers are similar.

Stereotypes can also be challenged with an awareness of the advantages brought by older workers. For instance, they will probably have greater loyalty to their firm than thirtysomethings with itchy feet. "At 55, you've got a good chance of keeping hold of an employee until the end of their career. In their early 30s, it can be hard to keep hold of them," says Duncan Bullimore, a senior manager at recruitment consultant Hays Montrose. What's more, grey hair and worldly wisdom add credibility in the eyes of clients.

That's the experience of site manager John Gunter, 66, who was made redundant from contractor Mansell in 1994 but is now in demand for contract positions. "I've got knowledge, experience and know-how to pass on, and I'm learning all the time," says Gunter, currently managing a housing association project in Hackney, east London. Although he concedes he hasn't got to grips with IT yet, he disputes the stereotype of learning-shy older workers. "One day I'll go for it and I won't be afraid of it," he says.

I’ve got knowledge, experience and know-how to pass on, and I’m learning all the time

John Gunter, 66, site manager

Gunter's extended career demonstrates that flexibility becomes more important the older you are. "Quite often, guys get stuck in the past and think 'that's the way I've always done it'. You've got to have the confidence to embrace new things,"

advises Bullimore. Technical skills and knowledge of legislation and industry issues should all be kept up to date. According to WSP's Addison, "that means making more effort to keep up with IT and get a breadth of experience".

If you are using a recruitment agency to help with a job search, it's worthwhile finding an older consultant or one who is awake to the need to combat ageism. "I don't have a problem placing people, but I might have if I was 22 years old," says Bruce Tucker, 55, a recruitment consultant at Cameron Brook Associates.

Helping yourself
Tucker advises older candidates not to burden themselves with bitterness towards previous employers: "Some people start destroying themselves with bitterness and self-criticism. Make sure you stay positive."

In the interview, Bullimore of Hays Montrose advises older candidates to come across as energetic, and to avoid patronising younger interviewers or calling them "young man".

As for personal presentation, the advice from image consultant Laurel Herman is to make sure you look as polished and contemporary as possible. "If you look frumpy, it implies you're not aware of what's going on out there," Herman says. She adds that the time and money spent on a haircut and good general grooming will be repaid by the increased confidence they will give you to say "you're lucky I'm still here".

Style tips for older men include steering clear of the hair colourant shelf in Boots, and paying special attention to choosing dark socks and modern shoes – the wrong choice "can kill an outfit". Women should aim for a colour co-ordinated outfit "that looks as together as they are".

The five ages of work

You’ve got the training and the certificate, but not the experience. Either this leaves you happy with a spectator’s position, or it gives you the chutzpah to take risks that older colleagues wouldn’t. Choose role models, both positive and negative, to help find your way. Thirties
In your 30s, you’ve worked out what you’re best at, and the type of role that will allow you to shine. This is the decade when many work out how to get themselves into that role, either by swapping companies, retraining or seeking promotion. It’s also the time when family commitments can send stress levels soaring. Forties
By this time, you’ve got the experience to know a good idea from a bad one, but you should still have the enthusiasm to take a new challenge and run with it. Stamina levels may be falling slightly, but your greater experience of work and life has made you a more rounded individual who is better able to cope with setbacks. Fifties
Your most valuable asset is the perspective that comes from your three decades at work. But if you find it’s not being valued, don’t think it’s too late for a career change. Colleges are increasingly offering courses aimed at “third agers”, while recent figures from Barclays Bank show a rise in new businesses set up by the over-50s. Sixties
The retirement age of 65 was set when male life expectancy was 67. In these days of healthier lifestyles there is no need to think of it as an automatic cut-off point. Or maybe you were an early retiree who had second thoughts – a category whose balanced approach to work and life can make them ideal candidates for many management roles.