Post 50 employment on cliff edge

Rachael Saunders, Age at Work Director, Business in the Community recently gave evidence at a Work and Pensions select committee, sharing the message that whilst benefits and legislation have an important part to play, access to work and the dignity and independence that work brings is what really matters.

Rachael Saunders

''Even the out going Work and Pensions secretary is concerned that older people have been unfairly protected from the cuts that have been made to the working age benefit bill. 

There is a lot of media interest in this current public debate - I enjoyed my recent opportunity to give evidence to the Work and Pensions select committee enquiry on intergenerational fairness.

The main point I sought to make was that, whilst the benefits system and legislation are important, access to work, and the dignity and independence that work brings are what really matters. 

Whilst the numbers of people in work over state pension age are increasing, there is still a cliff edge in labour market participation post 50.  So many people lose their job through redundancy, a caring responsibility or ill health, and find it so hard to get back into work.  We can change that, more older people working and paying their taxes is good for those of all ages who need government safety nets too. 

The committee was, understandably, focussed on government levers – but there is plenty we can achieve on age at work through business leadership and broader cultural change. 

One area where government can make a difference is on skills policy – a point acknowledged by Lord Willetts and Steve Webb, two previous ministers who gave evidence at the start of the enquiry.  Lord Willetts set out how fees had had an impact on the participation of older workers in higher education; also how pressures on FE and the ELQ policy, which means that you do not get funded for education if you already have an equivalent level qualification, mean that we have seen reductions in adult learning, which is bad news. 

Steve Webb cited midlife career reviews as a tool to help people think through second careers, and retraining – I agree, but the review will only really work if the learning needs people identify through the review can be met.

A clear role for government, and a clear role for business leadership is driving the organisational and cultural change we need to see on age at work. 

Whilst age cohorts can be a useful analytic tool, reading some of the other committee evidence sessions did worry me somewhat.  MPs from relatively privileged backgrounds were particularly concerned about young people because the opportunities open to the majority of today’s young people do not match what they remember about their beginning of their own working lives.   Nostalgia is unlikely to be a rock solid basis for policy making, and it seems more useful to me to understand and tackle current vulnerabilities and injustices for all age cohorts.

Most of us live as part of families, not age cohorts, and young people with wealthier older relatives will usually be much better off than those without.  A generational analysis only gets you so far with public policy.  “Fairness” has difficulties for me as a concept to try to measure justice.  There are far too many variables – is it fair to have more income if you have more skills and experience?  It is fair that university education is now open to far more people than it was 30 years ago?  Choices and opportunities may be different across generations, but will also be different for individuals within generational cohorts.   

The real issues it seems that the enquiry is grappling with are around income and resources.  It is hard to buy a first property, especially in London, on a low or moderate income – this will have an impact on young people without personal wealth, but will affect older people who are not home owners too.  The fact that others your age have substantial equity in their homes does not help if you do not.   

You have to make a lot of moral judgements to decide that it is worse to be young now then it was 30 years ago.  The opportunities I and my peers have had to travel and learn, my grandparents could not have dreamt of at my age.   We may have less security – jobs for life are gone – but most of us have far more freedom.  Creating new safety nets and support mechanisms for all of us, young and old, is what I would like politicians to focus on.''