The following ViewPoint is by Stephen Lambert a Newcastle City Councillor representing the Kenton Ward, he is a former senior lecturer at Bishop Auckland College and now sits as a community governor with Newcastle City Learn – the adult education service. He is a writer with 30 years teaching and management experience in further, adult and higher education.
‘FINISHED AT 50’: Do employers and the FE sector do enough to give older workers a chance?
ALTHOUGH UNEMPLOYMENT has fallen again across the country with more people in full-time and part-time paid work, one group that has been ignored is the over-50s – a growing demographic in Britain. True, most men and women in this age cohort are in paid jobs with a significant minority of middle-class professionals having opted for a 4-day week. Some, mostly middle-class professionals, dubbed WOOPIES (Well off old age pensioners) have taken early retirement in their mid-fifties with good work-based pensions and mortgages paid off. Yet this option is vanishing as the retirement age rises to 66.
The stark reality is that over a million people aged 50 to 64 remain economically inactive and want a job. It’s estimated by Age UK that 1.5m have been in this position in the last eight years: more than 1m would work if someone offered them a job. Many are women in their sixties who can no longer access their state pension at 60.
In Newcastle Upon Tyne about 1,000 50 to 64-year olds claim the unemployment benefit, job-seekers allowance. But this is an under-estimate. Some don’t claim because of their partners’ earnings. Others are put off by the bureaucratic claiming procedures. Others receive DLA or PIP – the ‘’hidden unemployed’’. Worklessness in this ‘’forgotten group’’ has been brought on by a range of factors such as redundancy, ill-health, burn-out or ‘’enforced retirement’’ on modest occupational pensions. As the TUC notes it’s virtually impossible for the older worker to find another job.
Age-based unemployment and early retirement is a class and gender-related thing. Most are former working- class, blue collar workers living in the most disadvantaged towns across the North of England and Wales. They are the victims of globalisation and automation which has caused long-term unemployment leaving them consigned to the economic scrap heap. For some working-class men over 55, the only real developments have been walking the dog, football, daytime telly and drinking.
Work done by Nick Drydakis shows that women over 50 are 25 times less likely to be offered a job interview than their peers in their twenties. Overall younger candidates were 4 times more likely to be given an interview. Younger men were 3 times more likely to get shortlisted than their older peers. The chief factor is age-based discrimination. Although some less enlightened employers are using subtle methods by just hiring the under-45s, a small, but growing number of forward-looking companies have policies that fly in the face of ageism such as B&Q. It makes good business sense to recruit older workers as consumers get older. Older workers are reliable, productive and less likely to take time off.
Although the Government has established an Older Workers Tzar to encourage bosses to recruit, retain and retrain older workers, stubborn attitudes still persist among some employers. The former Labour administration’s New Deal 50+ has been abandoned while re-training opportunities are few.
White working-class older people live in urban de-industrialised communities with high rates of poverty, low skill sets, ill-health and few, if any qualifications, Most 55 year olds haven’t been to school since the age of 16. They’re less likely to be equipped to compete in a digital fast-paced labour market which favours IT savvy youngsters. Some are locked into a ‘’cycle of deprivation’’ that acts as a barrier and prevents certain neighbourhoods from fulfilling their potential.
More needs to be done by the FE sector and local government to address the age, class and gender inequalities in pre-retirement. Nationally, there’s strong case to develop policies to improve the life-chances of the post-50 generation. A Charter for the Over-50s needs to be formulated. A fully funded Older Persons Enterprise Allowance Programme needs developing to promote self-employment. To date opportunities for older adults to get back to study or update their skills have been cut to the bone. Yet these are the things that could help the ‘left-behinds’ and ‘’left-outs’’ to get back onto the jobs ladder.
The older long-term unemployed still face entrenched ageism when putting in for jobs. Yet most have had over 30 years of valuable work experience and transferable skills (without knowing it). Because of employer prejudice the vast majority don’t stand a chance. The Equality Act needs toughening up. Redress needs reforming. Few on low incomes have the cash to fund discrimination cases at Employment Tribunals.
But we need a shift in cultural attitudes coupled with a ‘New Deal for the Older Worker’ if we’re serious about creating an age-diverse workplace in the 21st century.