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As society ages unequally, older workers face a precarious future

27 Feb 2019 By Chris Ball

The UK workforce is staying in employment for longer, but those nearing retirement are facing a poisonous mix of lack of support and little security, argues Chris Ball

Society is getting older, and life expectancy has been going up by an average of three years per decade. So we can all work longer before we retire, can’t we? Well no, actually. Not every social group is living that much longer and not everyone can “extend their working lives”, as the government would have us do.

It annoys me when I hear generalisations about these issues. I have met many people for whom staying in or re-entering work in later life has been a challenge. Some employers want to do the right thing, but ageism is encountered regularly in the recruitment market. Employers don’t always strive for a level playing field.

Why should we become entitled to our pensions at a randomly selected age? This is currently 65 but going up; it will be 70 by the middle of the century. Doable work and health are not at all equally distributed. A boy born in Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live to 82.5 years while one born in Blackpool may live to 74.7. A girl born in Nottingham has a healthy life expectancy of just 53.5 years.

There is surely a case for variable state pension ages. If someone has worked all their lives in a harsh environment, doing work which has benefited the rest of society, why should they not be allowed to retire earlier? ‘It’s too complicated’ is the answer.

In our research at Newcastle University we have been speaking to older workers and employers about the elements of active ageing and age management. Age management techniques have become familiar to employers all over the world – making changes to workplaces, work design, etc to improve the chances of people of all ages working longer.

But here in the UK, as low-paid jobs are outsourced, contractors focus on getting the job done quickly and are too impatient to consider age management changes. As Martin Davidson a specialist occupational health doctor who has worked for many large companies, points out, they make few attempts to support people in poor health to continue in work.

Far from employers prolonging the working lives of their employees, we see too many accelerating the departure of a worker whose productivity has fallen back. Some use early retirement to get rid of them, while others adopt them as a convenient supply of temporary flexible labour to be turned on and off with little notice. 

This two-pronged attack on the older worker captures the problem facing many people in their late fifties or early sixties. Working longer can be a good solution, but if you have to leave a job and make a comeback, you may only have the option of flexible, less secure jobs on poor conditions. In short, you may be forced into precarious work.

Sociologist Guy Standing believes that a new class of worker is emerging that he calls the ‘precariat’, who live and work in a precarious world, with unstable households, uncertain welfare benefits and precarious employment. They may be educated, but are not necessarily in established jobs or professions. Standing talks passionately about them as the “first class in history whose education is above the level of labour they can expect to obtain”.

Newcastle University’s David Lain and colleagues have been testing a theory that older workers are becoming part of this ‘precariat’, and have been interviewing groups of workers in the hospitality industry and local government.

The older precarious worker is all around us. Jobs that we once expected to be secure are given as short-term contracts. The much vaunted flexibility, which older workers are thought to favour, can be a poisoned chalice. “We imagine they find the flexible schedules to their liking,” says Lain, “but many would value greater income predictability.”

“In reality, many older people want to continue working. However, some will find themselves involuntarily working on a part-time or self-employment basis, or will have zero-hours contracts. Others will feel their situation is precarious because they have to work longer but think their jobs have become insecure or unsustainable.”

For some, the safety net of job security has been replaced by insecure work in the gig economy. Increasingly, as Lain and colleagues argue, this is the only kind of work that some older workers can find. They feel precarious but put up with it because they are obliged to do so.

The reality of extended working lives may be good news for some, but for others it is a life full of worries and uncertainty. Not necessarily the rose-tinted golden years which some would have us believe, but take it or leave it. This, for them, is the reality of not-quite-retirement.

Chris Ball is a researcher at Newcastle University’s Centre for Research into the Older Workforce

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