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Improving the working lives of older workers

14 October 2020: ICAEW spoke to Claire Turner, Director of Evidence at the Centre for Ageing Better, about the struggles facing older workers and what action is needed to ensure financial livelihoods and fulfilling work.

While it’s true that financial difficulties were very much affecting some older workers pre-COVID, these difficulties have been exacerbated during the pandemic. In particular, job losses and ageism mean that many workers in their 50s and 60s are struggling. There are also concerns around inadequate pension provision. 

Turner, who jointly leads Ageing Better’s work to build evidence of what works to support people to enjoy later life, argues that it is time to ask bigger questions about the world of work for older people. How do we, as a society, ensure that older workers have fulfilling work? How do we encourage career changes or retraining over time to enable job satisfaction? How do we learn from the flexible working patterns that have developed during the pandemic and evolve our notions about the workplace, considering what that means for people of all ages?

“It’s really important to understand that … COVID is highlighting and exacerbating the inequalities that already existed. There can be this perception of baby boomers, for example, that they’ve never had it so good; that they’re all sitting on a lot of wealth. However, as with any life stage or cohort, there are real differences across the group. For example, we know that there are 1.3 million pensioners currently living in poverty.”

Older workers in financial difficulty

Many older workers are struggling financially. The number of older workers on unemployment benefits has doubled due to the pandemic. Furthermore, one in four older workers have been furloughed, and, based on polling, many are not feeling confident that they will be employed in the future. Those who are over 50 and unemployed are twice as likely to be out of work for more than a year compared to a young person. 

Turner and colleagues at the Centre for Ageing Better have also done research on black and ethnic minority groups and have found that, compared to their white counterparts, they are more likely to be working later in life and be on lower incomes. 

Pension concerns

In a recent poll by Ageing Better and Ipsos Mori, it was found that 44% of 50 to 70-year-olds think their finances will get worse as a result of the pandemic, rising to two-thirds amongst those who are self-employed. Inequalities around employment and income have a huge bearing on people’s ability to save and therefore their financial security later on in life. 

For example, the pensions triple lock, while not a perfect tool, plays a vital role in ensuring the value of the state pension is maintained. Many people rely on the state pension for their main, or only, source of income. For those people, scrapping the triple lock would badly affect their finance security in old age. The current state pension is already very modest: the UK has one of the least generous state pensions in the OECD.

But perhaps crucially, the impact on future generations of retirees would be much greater, as they stand to gain the most from the guaranteed rise in the state pension. A 2018 report found that scrapping the triple lock could see the number of pensioners in poverty rise by 700,000 by 2050. 

Fulfilling work and retraining later in life

Turner states: “we need to ensure that people can work for as long as they need to and that work is fulfilling for them.” As we are all working longer, it is important to consider what that work looks like.

There need to be opportunities to retrain for those in their 50s and 60s. Ageism is out there, often internalised, and there has been a tendency to write off older workers. It is necessary to consider all the positives that people have to offer during this phase of life. For example, their knowledge could benefit younger generations just starting their careers in the form of mentoring. 

Ageism and a lack of development opportunities later in life existed before COVID, and these are being exacerbated by the pandemic which has led to increased job losses. Now is the time to open up the conversation about what it means to be an age-friendly employer.

“We need to see later life as a time of opportunity, not as one of decline,” says Turner. “Interventions like the Mid-life MOT can help people reflect on the future in terms of work, money and health.” Turner and colleagues at the Centre for Ageing Better have piloted mid-life support courses which help older workers think about the future and feel more positive later in life. In these courses older workers are asked the question, “what do you want to do with your life?” For many, they have not heard that question since they were in school, another reflection on how we view later life. 

There is hope that, due to the pandemic, people are thinking differently about ways of working. As a society, we have seen that people can be productive working remotely and flexibly. Hopefully these new modes of thinking about work can continue into the future. Flexible working could benefit older workers who may also be carers or are managing competing priorities in their work-life balance.