The Government has been prompting older workers back to the workplace. This summer Mel Stride the Work and Pensions Secretary suggested that older workers could hop on bikes to become food delivery workers like Deliveroo. The headlines create an image of over 50s not working as “resting”, failing to do their bit for the nation’s recovery, but a reserve army able to jump into the labour market to solve shortages. Unfortunately, London’s older workers not working are a more complicated lot but with lots of problems.
Research released this week by the West London Alliance (a partnership of London Boroughs) conducted by the Institute of Employment Studies paints a stark picture of unemployed older workers in west London (https://wla.london/publication-of-over-50s-research-skills-employment/). Researchers interviewed providers of employment support across West London and unemployed older workers. The report reveals the inequalities facing over 50s in this part of London. Universal Credit and Census data shows the generally higher rates of disadvantage among older people in West London than in the country as a whole, with 15 per cent of 50-64s claiming Universal Credit compared with 10 per cent of those in England.
The report argues for better tailored and targeted one to one support to be provided also dealing with additional support needs faced by the older unemployed – health , skills, literacy. It recommends increased co-ordination of services between Borough support services and job centres together more employer engagement to promote age positive practises. All of this is very sensible and it’s commendable the West London Alliance has commissioned much needed research like this. Yet what jumps out from the report is the consistent theme from those unemployed interviewed that age counted against them when they were applying for work, and their experience of overt ageism in recruitment.
Clearly there is a lot of employment support activities trying to cater for this age group, but older workers still haven’t gained the policy attention by London policy makers compared with young people.
We need a new agenda for looking at London’s older workers addressing the key problems faced by many. “Older workers” is a broad category, concealing massive disadvantages in employment and in getting jobs based on ethnicity, gender and being disabled.
Economic inactivity of all London workers is at 22.7 percent having risen in the last quarter. The reason for economic inactivity amongst older workers isn’t just retirement despite the popular image, but also long-term health problems which are rising. Across the UK’s 3.5 million inactive 50-64s – 42 per cent gave being sick or disabled as the reason for not looking for work. Providers of employment support in London also report seeing more mental health issues. Caring responsibilities are also a barrier to seeking work. Employment support needs to help older workers address the impediments to getting a job, but the dilemma for providers is that securing a job is the official formal outcome rather than sorting out health and welfare issues.
Tailored support is the watchword for helping unemployed over 50s but accessing available employment support is still a problem for those out of work. How to reach those most at distance from the job market and not on benefits and provide something which is valued is a challenge for Boroughs and DWP.
But the more deep-seated challenge for London’s policy makers is how to ensure the labour market is fair for older workers given that employer ageism is cited by so many older workers as a barrier both in employment and those seeking work . This undermines confidence and goes broader as the telling research just released by Age UK London shows with only 13 per cent over 50s in work agreeing that they are valued living in London (older-londoners-september-2023.pdf (ageuk.org.uk))
The Mayor Of London has just signed the GLA up to the Age Friendly Employer Pledge (International Day of Older People 2023 | London City Hall ). Pledges are all fine, but don’t automatically mean organisations employ more older workers without economic incentives or cultural change.
The risk is that disadvantaged older workers out of work just fuels future pensioner poverty in London. We know that those who enter poverty tend to have had a low income when they worked often in precarious jobs . And at 25 per cent, poverty levels among older Londoners are amongst the highest in the country.
Pre- pandemic there were rosy expectations of older people working longer out of choice. Now we’re seeing participation rates drop, but for some older workers wanting to work the spectre of them never working looms ahead with financial misery.
Tim Whitaker is a Trustee of Wise Age