Man walks into a pub and asks the GM how much she’s paid. Before she can answer, the stranger offers her £20,000 a year more to go and run one of his businesses. 

That may or may not be exactly true, but neither is it the start of a joke. Those who have been idling their time on Twitter may recognize it as an approximation to a tweet doing the rounds, warning of the first shots in what may soon be an all out, no-holds-barred talent war.

One thing we know is that the world of work has changed dramatically over the past 14 months. More importantly, the consequences are going to be felt by all of us – whether in hospitality or not. Routines and patterns of operating that we once took for granted may well disappear, if they haven’t already. We are all going to have to adapt, although how exactly may not be as obvious.

By some estimates the UK’s population has fallen by over a million since the start of the pandemic, mostly due to people returning to their homelands in the EU. Whether that’s down to Covid or Brexit or both, the simple fact is they have gone.

As my friends at Trajectory, the forecasting specialists, pointed out at a recent webinar, most of those that have left are working-age 20 to 39 year-olds, with London seeing the biggest population decline, followed by the West Midlands.

As they also observe, that means the UK population is not only getting older but now at a faster rate, with proportionally more retired people, and fewer of working age. The shift also points to a reversal in the long-term trend towards urbanization.

As well as mainly young workers leaving our cities, there is also the middle-class drift to the suburbs and more rural environments as many in white-collar jobs continue to work at least partly from home and companies reassess where to locate offices, if they want them at all.

A survey for the BBC this week suggested there would be no full-time return to the office for over a million people. Almost all 50 of the UK’s biggest employers questioned said they did not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. These are big numbers.

These predictions, of course, have major ramifications for the food and drink sector about where to trade and crucially where to find staff, with hospitality already being disproportionally affected by the EU exodus.

So what’s to be done on the people front, short of brazenly poaching from the opposition? Automate? Work harder at making hospitality an attractive place for the under 30s? Look to engage an older workforce? Or all of the above?

As BrewDog’s forward-thinking COO David McDowall told MCA’s The Conversation this week: “There is a deep rooted issue with how our sector is viewed as a long term career option, and with how we attract and reward great people. The last year has done even more damage to that. We have to take this opportunity to do something about it.”

He rightly talked about addressing structural questions around working hours, salary and benefits, contractual security and development and growth opportunities. The industry does appear to need a step-change, both in attitudes to the young, but also, I might suggest, the older generation as potential employees.

With average life expectancy in the UK now over 80, and most staying relatively healthy well into their 70s, why aren’t more being coaxed into productive work post retirement age? In the UK just 11% of over 65s are economically active, about twice the average in France or Germany, but down on the 20% in the US.

Interestingly, Spain, which has seen its birth rate drop 10% this past year, is a country attempting to do something about that with a plan to pay workers to postpone retirement by offering up to €12,000 to work beyond the pension age. One aim of the Spanish government is to reduce the deficit in its social security budget – but another benefit would be to boost an otherwise shrinking labour pool.

Persuading oldies to join the business, or stay on, might even be easier than trying to recruit Generation Zs or retaining footloose millennials – although potential employers will still need to be adaptable and creative about the needs of an older workforce.

Whether continuing to focus on the young or looking to more age-flexible teams, new thinking is going to be needed – some dictated by the changing times, some just by generational differences.

When I started writing about the sector more than a few decades ago, managed pubs were still run by management couples who lived above the shop, mirroring the tenanted model. Few pubs were lock-ups. The likes of Wetherspoon’s then changed the game again by guaranteeing set hours and days off for managers and staff. Those were all important advances.

But, the sector now needs more radical thinking and to adapt, not just around pay, but who and how it recruits – otherwise your existing teams may well be tempted away by those willing to splash the cash.