From the TUC

Older workers and the recession

03 Sep 2009, by in Economics, Equality, Labour market

This recession has encouraged some half-witted arguments, but one of the worst is the notion that, because young people are facing the worst prospects of any age group (undoubtedly true), therefore older workers should ‘stand aside’ to ‘make room’ for them (complete b*!!*<#s).

There may be an obvious reason why I am more aware of the fatuity of this argument now than I was during the 80s or 90s recessions, but there are good trade union arguments as well as personal ones.

It isn’t so long since there were people (quite a lot of them, in fact) who would tell you that women were keeping men out of jobs and that the answer to unemployment was to force them back into the home. Today, any trades unionist has an answer to that one:

  • Women workers need the wages – their families could not survive without them. And women value their careers every bit as much as men do.
  • Businesses need to recruit the best person for the job if they are going to succeed in highly competitive markets. Blocking women’s employment cuts employers off from half of those best people.

(There are other arguments as well; these are the ones that appeal to me.)

Very similar arguments apply to older workers.

I’m not arguing against the right to a decent retirement. But, given the state of many pension schemes, an increasing number of older workers cannot afford to retire just now. And of course, there are plenty of older workers who are the best person for the job they are doing.

Just as important, to my mind, is the impact that giving up work would have on people’s quality of life. There are plenty of people who would lose the part of their life that is most fulfilling if they had to give up their jobs and plenty more who still have goals they have not achieved (even if they are over 50).

For many people, early retirement is involuntary and strongly linked to social exclusion. A study for the Cabinet Office reported that 40 per cent of retired men and 20 per cent of retired women had retired earlier than they expected, and that, in two thirds of cases, this was initiated by the employer. Even seemingly voluntary retirement may be the result of having very few other choices – “it is not safe to assume”, they concluded, ” that any more than one-third of the increase in worklessness in this age group is due to fully voluntary early retirement.”

Another study, for the Social Exclusion Unit, found that multiple exclusion among older people was linked to unemployment – unemployed people were more likely than any other category of older people to be excluded on the social, civic, neighbourhood or material ‘dimensions’ of exclusion.

I don’t buy the argument that ‘standing aside’ could just be temporary, with a return to work once the recession is over. Older workers find it harder than people from other age groups to return to employment once they have lost their jobs: a recent study found that people aged between 50 and state pension age who were not in employment in 2002-3 were ten times as likely to still be out of work in 2004-5 as to have returned to employment.

For a trades unionist, collective answers to economic problems are superior to blaming particular groups of workers. Claims that one group of workers can only do well if another does badly strike at the heart of the principle of solidarity.