Unequal opportunities for older workers
This week we’ve seen two releases highlighting the growth in employment among older workers. Saga noted that the number of over 65 year olds in work has topped one million for the first time – a 36% increase since 2010 – while the DWP celebrated the very high rates of employment among 50 to 64 year olds in some parts of the country such as Hertfordshire, North Dorset and the Shetlands.
However, research for the TUC by Dr Matt Flynn of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce (CROW) found that UK employers still lag some way behind their counterparts in countries like Germany and Finland when it comes to adapting the workplace, jobs and working conditions to the needs of an ageing workforce. And, as the DWP’s release touched upon, there is considerable inequality within the older workforce. Nearly nine in ten 50 to 64 year olds might be in work in places like Hertfordshire but, in the likes of Thanet, Merthyr Tydfil and Tower Hamlets almost half are out of work.
As the TUC report explains, one of the key factors determining longer working life is job autonomy. Those workers who have control over the kind of work they do and how they carry it out are more likely to be able to continue in work. Inevitably, they tend to be those in higher status and professional jobs. In particular, older men who stay in work beyond 65 are most often employed as managers, directors and professionals. Older women, as the TUC’s Age Immaterial report showed earlier this year, are more likely to be in part-time and low-paid jobs and they are increasingly being pushed to work for longer as a result of increases in pension age. Older people without qualifications or in manual work are more likely to exit the workforce on ill-health grounds before pension age and they will often struggle to find decent alternative work opportunities.
Two contrasting examples are given in the CROW report for the TUC from focus groups with older workers. Jane, a woman in her early fifties was made redundant from the civil service. Despite re-training as a bookkeeper, she found she continually lost out to younger applicants when applying for jobs. By contrast, Carl, a retired civil servant, found he was repeatedly called back to work to help with specific projects that made use of his knowledge and experience. As the report states, it is not unusual for employers to use ‘retired’ employees in this way, suggesting older workers with sought after skills and good social networks are more able to access work through closed labour markets. Those who rely on open recruitment processes still struggle to overcome ageist assumptions about performance and capability, as the high number of over 50s among the long term unemployed indicates.
Union officials interviewed for the report also said that since the abolition of the default retirement age their caseload from older workers who have been pushed out of work on capability, performance or ill health grounds has increased, suggesting many employers are simply dismissing by alternative means. It was difficult to find examples of employers developing positive strategies to respond to an ageing workforce, creating more widespread opportunities for workers to continue to thrive and develop in later life. One of the few that features in the report is the German-owned BMW. Its ‘Today for Tomorrow’ programme is aimed not just at the ageing worker but at helping the workforce age better. Their engineers ensure that all new facilities are built to a standard where no unnecessary burden is placed on workers. There is job rotation to avoid repetitive stress of strains; a range of health management measures (e.g. cycle to work schemes, regular health checks); well-being measures like the introduction of shorter shifts to reduce daily working hours; flexible working arrangements and processes to facilitate job transfers for workers with medical constraints to more suitable roles.
To help improve opportunities for all workers in later life, the TUC has called for the roll out of mid-life development reviews. With ageism still rife in many workplaces, older workers are often reluctant to initiate conversations about training or development needs with their employer, believing that this might reinforce stereotypes about inevitable decline and inability to cope with technological change. One of the recognised advantages of Union Learning Reps is that workers are more likely to reveal training and development needs to a fellow worker than a manager or someone in HR. A recent Unionlearn pilot (part of a BIS-funded project) on mid-life development reviews by ULRs found considerable demand from older workers for such reviews – 770 signed up for a review, exceeding what was anticipated. Perhaps, another indication that many workers in their fifties and sixties are still being overlooked and, at best, are left to coast towards retirement as employers focus their attention on ‘prime age’ employees.
Download the CROW report ‘Representing an Ageing Workforce’ for the TUC [PDF]