David Kingman reports on the recent recommendation that the government should have a dedicated strategy to assist older workers with finding employment, and asks whether more targeted help is needed for people of all ages
Following an eight-month period of research and consultation, the Coalition Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, Dr Ros Altman, recently reported on her recommendations for how the government can help older people find work.
It is widely acknowledged that a combination of rising life expectancy, longer healthy lives and inadequate retirement savings mean that people should remain in the workforce for longer. However, many struggle with a reluctance among employers to hire older workers, and Dr Altman’s report warns that there could be many as 1.2 million people over the age of 50 who would like to work but are having trouble finding jobs.
The solution she recommends is a focus upon the “3 Rs”: Retain, Retrain and Recruit. She argues that businesses should be given help and incentives to retain older workers whom they might be thinking of getting rid of (although the abolition of default retirement ages means they can no longer do this based on age alone); to retrain existing staff as they get older to help them deal with new technology or changing responsibilities; and to encourage them to recruit more older workers in the first place.
The 3 Rs would form the basis of the cross-governmental strategy on older workers, as recommended by Dr Altman. This would focus particularly on skills gaps, mid-life career reviews and creating apprenticeships for older workers.
These days, no government report on any subject would be complete without an estimate of the total benefit to the economy if the measures which it proposes were implemented, and in this case Dr Altman argues that if just half of the 1.2 million would-be older workers managed to find work, the total could amount to £25 billion per year.
According to a Department for Work and Pensions press release, Dr Altman argued that:
“The need to retain, retrain and recruit workers over 50 is becoming increasingly important as the population changes and people live longer. I have set out to challenge outdated stereotypes, unconscious bias and age discrimination, which all contribute to preventing older people from staying in or returning to work. There are many ways we can tackle this – which I have addressed in my report – including apprenticeships for those over 50, flexible working and better training for line-managers. Acting upon my recommendations will bring benefits to us all.”
A broader rethink?
Dr Altman’s report is a positive contribution towards the worthy aim of helping extend older peoples’ working lives. However, it is worth remembering that unemployment affects people of all ages, and – according to the latest government data – there are still 740,000 people aged 16–24 looking for work who can’t find it. Some evidence suggests that a period of unemployment while you are young can be especially damaging to your long-term career prospects, in terms of lost wages and experience compared to other members of your cohort who are employed. Funding for careers advice, post-16 education and the adult skills budget have all been cut under the Coalition, with further reductions potentially in the pipeline.
This is not to suggest that helping older people find employment is the wrong target to aim for. Rather, the government should also do more to address youth unemployment at the same time. Last year, the devolved administration in Scotland set the politicians in London a good example by committing to reduce youth unemployment north of the border by 40% by 2021, building on the recommendations of an expert committee chaired by Sir Ian Wood.
The Westminster government could be even more ambitious if it wanted, by taking a holistic approach to unemployment which looked at it as a problem affecting all age groups, Within that remit, thy could focus on certain key stages in the life-cycle that carry particular risks and challenges, such as during the school-to-work transition, the post-childbearing phase for women and the pre-retirement stage for older workers.
After all, the concept of the “Right to Work” is widely seen as a fundamental human right, hence this is why it is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it should apply to everyone, regardless of their age