Older workers: we need less talk and more action

The need to retain and recruit the talents of older workers has never received so much coverage. But we need more than headlines and promises to fix the systemic issues preventing this from happening, argues Tim Whitaker of Wise Age.

It’s official. One of the UK’s fastest growing growth industries is the punditry, reports, media coverage and prognoses about our “older worker problem”.

Pre-pandemic, the debate was around how to keep improving those graphs of older people working for longer.  Now older workers are centre stage in media and policy agendas… core to future productivity (though perhaps shirking from putting their shoulder to the wheel of economic recovery): too many suffering from ill health, with the rich ones skiving off to the golf courses with their large pensions.

But has this frenetic debate helped forge a consensus on what policies are required and raised consciousness about the benefits of older workers?  

There were high expectations that the Budget would fix the “problem”, yet (unsurprisingly) apart from a few measures, the continuing lack of a coherent strategy for older workers represents a missed opportunity. Yes, media attention means employers are becoming more aware of older workers; but the jury is out on whether hirings and action on the ground are actually improving – and whether they actually have a strategy for older workers, despite the hubris from some employment commentators.

The current debate also poses difficulties for older people activist groups on how to position their argument. Chasing media headlines is always difficult. And there’s the risk of succumbing to the simplistic narratives: older workers will automatically sort out the vacancy problem; all older workers are disadvantaged and discriminated against; those in retirement have healthy financial futures ahead.

Bringing London up to speed

Wise Age, as a London charity for over 50s workers, is in the thick of all this – supporting older workers and pushing employers to hire more older workers and become age friendly. One strand is our long-running campaign to get the Mayor of London to develop a London Age Friendly employment agenda. London lags behind Manchester and other cities on this front.

Despite London being a rich city, older workers’ employment is complicated. On the downside, London’s unemployment rate is one of the highest and economic inactivity above average. But, at 25 per cent, poverty levels among older Londoners are the highest in the country.

Added to this, there are massive disadvantages based on ethnicity, gender and being disabled. And the number of precarious jobs older workers are in is high… and in turn, linked to precarious households and homes. Low quality and low paid jobs of older workers don’t cope with rising cost of living and risk fuelling future pensioner poverty.

Yet, London leads the table on economic inactive workers considering a return to work and Londoners still tend to work later into life than the rest of country, with the highest rate of over-65s in work at 14 per cent and in some Boroughs up to 20 per cent.

Setting the priorities

This then poses the issue: what are the urgent priorities to tackle problems facing London’s older workers?  

Wise Age and other experts recently gave evidence to the Greater London Authority’s Assembly Economy Committee’s inquiry into financial hardship and employment facing older Londoners. This set out an agenda of action for London but also presented a more nuanced view of the priorities in the “older worker problem”  focussing on overcoming disadvantage. You can read more on this link: https://www.onlondon.co.uk/campaign-groups-call-for-more-recognition-of-the-strengths-and-needs-of-older-londoners/

Core is a GLA led older workers strategy for London involving partnersbut also using the Mayor’s soft power to stimulate change. Our argument is that older workers have been left behind in London’s economic recovery.

But we need a better evidence base and understanding of the needs and circumstances of London’s older workers – particularly the barriers to employment and the multiple problems faced. There are big risks of lumping all “older workers” together, making assumptions about needs, or looking at older workers through the prism of existing provider employment support initiatives.

Older workers need access to better quality localised employment supportaddressing their needs. This must be tailored, and our evidence is that older workers don’t like being grouped with younger workers on generic employment programmes.

Ageism: the elephant in the room

Crucially those furthest from the job market, those facing the most inequalities such as disabled, ethnic minority older workers, women and those with health conditions and long-term unemployed need special attention and holistic help going beyond traditional employment support.  As only 1 in 10 older workers receive employment support, then reaching a wider audience of over 50s through a personalisation agenda and better marketing is necessary.

Finally, but not least, the “elephant in the room”: the ageism of employers which needs to be tackled. Without this, older workers face the risk of returning to the workplace but suffering from the same negative experience of lack of support, falling job satisfaction and jobs not being flexible. The Mayor and his partners should run a high-profilecombatting ageism campaign across London coupled with a championing older workers campaign to promote age friendly workplaces.

But with all of these actions, we need the right metrics of impact on the ground – and this has been a big weakness to date.

Tim Whitaker is a Trustee of Wise Age and also involved in the London Age Friendly Forum. Wise Age Wise Age | The Over 50’s Employment Support Charity

Please share: