Gordon's state of Limbo and the reality of Fuller Working Lives

With the vote for Brexit, the argument for supporting Fuller Working Lives would seem even stronger. If the Government reduces migration from Europe as they intend, they will need to help people to work longer, simply to supply the skilled workers our economy requires.

Australian points system or not, employers will surely have to treasure older workers while paying attention to their continued work-ability and employability.

The Government’s Fuller Working Lives strategy is due to be revised at some point this summer. What will it look like? What kinds of changes are in the offing? How might the new Government need to tweak our policies around working longer?

We are living longer so earlier retirement as we have  known it in the past doesn’t make a lot of sense. Back in the 1960s life expectancy for men beyond pensionable age was 11.9 years compared with 19 years today. More and more people are expected to live into their nineties and even reach 100.

A fair agenda for change should bring together the best possible forms of support for individuals to remain in work with greater fairness in the labour market and encouragement for people to remain healthy and employable for longer.

There is no single “silver bullet” solution though there are a few golden rules the Government could follow. Helping people to remain in good health and employable is surely one of these. There is a wealth of detail that we need to consider around experience of what works. I will revisit some of this shortly but for now I offer a few thoughts on the changes that could make a useful addition to the Fuller Working Lives strategy.)

We must do more to maintain our health  and well being. We face challenges because people are living longer but are not remaining healthy and so are unable to work. Social diseases are a particular issue, including mental health.

Obesity is on the increase with all its associated conditions along with smoking and alcohol consumption. None of these things can be treated in isolation.

Given all these challenges, it is obvious that older unemployed people need effective help to remain active. They need this just as much -  perhaps more than - anyone else.

The therapeutic effect of work on health is established but needs to be better understood, as does the necessity for different work patterns and kinds of work for an ageing population. Is there any evidence that we are really addressing this issue? For example, making ergonomic assessments of workplaces as a routine matter would help people of all ages but particularly older workers.

Major investment in public health is part of the answer but there are many things that can be done that are more to do with energising existing potential and spreading the excellent things being done in some quarters. (Look how the Park Run movement has energised tens of thousands to take part in physical actdivity. We need more of the same.) Raising awareness and changing life styles of people in their forties, fifties and sixties will bring huge benefits as they enter old age.

We need employabilty measures tageted at older people: Overcoming barriers and finding work means drawing on the best ideas and skills we have to offer. These don’t produce magic results but can make a significant difference. There has to be sufficient time for individuals to make transitions and investment in skills and retraining is needed if we are to make a real difference to older people’s chances of success in the labour market.  

We need to become more conscious of the different challenges facing age cohorts within the 50+ age range. We lump all the “50+” together as though it makes sense to consider them as a single entity. In fact we need more data on the real numbers of older job seekers and other older people who would like to return to work and we need to understand their different challenges better.

More than a million over 65 year olds are in work today, (including nearly 14 per cent of all men in the 65+ age group) but we have only the foggiest notion of how many officially “retired” people would like work if they were given the chance.  How many over 65s want to work and how do these numbers change on a monthly basis? If the Government is serious about working longer and “fuller” they should face up to the gaps in our basic knowledge about how well the older labour market is functioning.

We need to help those who want to de-retire or just delay retirement: We seem to assume that all of the non-employed 65 pluses are happy “pensioners,” whilst this may not be true. Many would prefer to be in work or at least, combining work with a pension to make it go further. People should be encouraged to try the partial pension route through wider use of flexible retirement.

We need to lessen the disincentives to earn and draw one’s pension by levelling out the tax on pensioner jobs: Working whilst claiming a pension, can result in a few good years of higher income which in turn incur higher taxes. More people will feel it is worth their while to combine a pension with a salary if this could be overcome. (Spreading incomes earned in retirement over several years for tax purposes, for example, would make a difference to people’s willingness to take on paid employment in retirement.)

We must make it possible for people of all ages to get retraining grants and support - remove existing ageist rules against such grants: The lack of support for older people to train is another policy gap. Why ever should we bar people from opportunities to train at 64 if we believe they have another five to ten years of working life ahead?

Allow job seekers over 65 to get help from Jobcentre Plus: People over state pension age are not entitled to jobseekers allowance but neither can they receive support from Jobcentre Plus to find work. Again, this seems at odds with the Fuller Working Lives strategy.

So these are some thoughts to be going on with. Now a little example to finish.

“Gordon”, contacted me recently to explain his state of limbo between job seekers allowance and state pension. He wanted and needed to work. As he was not yet 65 he was not getting a state pension but his wife’s income debarred him from job seekers’ allowance too. Unfortunately, he had been told he is not entitled to support in the job search process.

I am happy to report that the Jobcentre Plus people I spoke to about him were sympathetic and my Shaw Trust colleagues have been pulling out all the stops too to get him a new job, but how many unwilling retirees or would be de-retirees are there like this – caught between the devil and the deep blue sea?

As I have said, for a fifty or sixty year unemployed person, finding a new job is a real challenge. 27% of all people between 50 and 64 are are not in work and not seeking work. Public policy recognises that this has to change but we don’t yet have all the policies in place.  Let’s be positive and hope that the Government will understand this point. We will know more come September.


Comment: Chris.Ball@shaw-trust.org.uk