The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into older people and employment – written evidence submitted by New Middle Age

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into older people and employment took its first oral evidence yesterday.

This is a welcome inquiry which will seek to examine the effectiveness of current Government policies to help people extend their working lives, and consider further steps which could be taken to tackle issues including age discrimination.

In an excellent opening session, evidence was presented around the core issues of why more over 50s are not in work, the barriers they face and what more could be done to increase employment for this group. The session can be viewed in full here.

Written evidence has also been taken and New Middle Age presented the following submission. The full record of all written evidence submitted can be viewed here.

Evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into older people and employment, written submission from New Middle Age, prepared by Angela Watson, Founder, 2 November 2017

Background on New Middle Age

New Middle Age is a web campaign, run by founder Angela Watson, which aims to improve the image, outcomes and lived experience of people aged 50 to retirement. Employment is a key issue.

The campaign launched in January 2017 but continues work Ms Watson was engaged with as manager of Labour’s Commission on Older Women. She wrote the final report of the Commission, “Our Time: a strategy for older women in work, in their caring responsibilities and in public life” published in April 2015. The Commission was then disbanded but Ms Watson continued researching the theme of our ageing society independently and set up New Middle Age.

Ms Watson blogs regularly via the New Middle Age website on a range of age-related topics, engages in current debate via social media @New_Middle_Age, and is currently working with a group of academics to increase cooperation and sharing across the age, work and retirement agenda through a proposed special interest group of the British Society of Gerontology.

Executive Summary

  • The Fuller Working Lives strategy addresses many of the issues identified by the Altmann Review. However, certain recommendations of the Altmann Review, including around image, research, flexible working and phased retirement, appear to be omitted from the Fuller Working Lives strategy. New Middle Age considers these to be of critical importance.
  • The work of the Business in the Community Age and Work Committee as Business Champion for Older Workers has been excellent in identifying the scope for a million more workers by 2022 and leading the strategy. However, the scope of the approach could helpfully widen, both in terms of issues eg quality as well as quantity of jobs, plus those involved.
  • A key measure would be to direct more support towards the ‘economically inactive’ 50-64 year olds who do not benefit from measures directed at JSA claimants. More generally New Middle Age identifies four key areas for further action to support employment of the 50 to retirement generation: a new image; new economic analyses; a new approach to age; and a new workplace.
  • Despite moves towards industry best practice, a recent study of recruitment practice evidences that younger candidates are four times more likely to be invited to a job interview that older candidates. Anecdotal evidence indicates that person specifications may include indirect age bias and recruitment agencies can show bias towards younger candidates in registration and application processes.
  • New Middle Age has no specialist knowledge on Jobcentre Plus services, but would encourage a broadening of scope to include support for the 3.3 million economically inactive 50-64 year olds currently not targeted by Jobcentre Plus services.
  • Employer financial incentives might need to be considered, with inevitable Exchequer costs, if evidence suggests that industry best practice methods are not yielding results, as in the case of recruitment processes (para 4 below).
  • Various reforms to workplace policy and practice could offer cross-generational potential with specific benefit for older workers.
  • Dual discrimination, and the inability to pursue dual discrimination cases, continues to be evidenced.

Detailed Submission

The evidence is presented as answers to the 8 questions included in the inquiry evidence call.

  1. Is the Fuller Working Lives strategy a comprehensive response to the issues identified in the Altmann Review?

The Fuller Working Lives strategy addresses many of the issues identified by the Altmann Review. However, certain recommendations of the Altmann Review have not been followed up which New Middle Age considers to be of critical importance to the success of the strategy.

1.1    Image

The Altmann Review makes recommendations regarding image and stereotyping of older people (Recommendations for Wider Society and the Media page 47). This vital issue appears to have been overlooked in the Fuller Working Lives strategy. If we do not have a positive image of older workers – not necessarily the same as older people who include those past retirement – it is unlikely that they will be appreciated as a valuable economic resource. References to skills of older workers are made in the Fuller Working Lives strategy, but this is not enough.

1.2    Research

The Altmann Review recommends a major research initiative to support efforts to increase the employment of older workers. The Fuller Working Lives strategy makes reference to evidence building and the work of the Centre for Ageing Better. However, there is a broader context here. A considerable gerontology research community devoted to studies of age, employment and retirement exists, based in universities and research centres, with representation through the British Society of Gerontology. There appears to be scope for increased support, cooperation and sharing which could achieve more of the major research initiative the Altmann Review envisages.

1.3    Flexibility from day one of employment

Current policy limits the right to request flexible working to those who have 6 months continuous service with their employer. This restriction appears to be endorsed by the Fuller Working Lives strategy but not by the Altmann Review. Importantly, if flexible working is to be available as a tool to encourage a return to the workplace for those currently unemployed or economically inactive – especially for those who need to balance work with other responsibilities such as caring – flexibility will need to be available from day one.

1.4    Phased retirement

The Fuller Working Lives strategy has proposals to implement this element of the Altmann review recommendations. However, evidence brings into question the effectiveness of current measures. Findings of the ‘Uncertain Futures: Managing Late Career Transitions and Extended Working Life Project’, funded by the ESRC and led by Professor Sarah Vickerstaff, University of Kent, indicate that these strategies are not proving effective and that, despite widespread support, there is limited progress towards phased retirement (paper here).

  1. What progress has been made to date by the Government’s employer-led approach, and what are its strengths and limitations?

2.1    The work of the Business in the Community (BITC) Age and Work Committee as Business Champion for Older Workers has been excellent in identifying the scope for a million more workers by 2022 and leading the strategy. The call for employers to commit to the initiative and publish data on employment of older workers is welcomed. However, progress to date has largely been restricted to strategies, and evidence of delivery is yet to come. Evidence from academic research, as referenced in paragraph 1.4 above, has not so far indicated widespread successful implementation of the employer-led approach.

2.2     Additionally, the BITC campaign focusses on three aims: to prevent early exit; to support later life working; and to support intergenerational workforces. Broader issues also need to be considered, such as the quality as well as quantity of work. It might also be helpful to broaden employer participation to include other employer and employee representative groups and ensure participation by both large corporations and SMEs.

  1. What further steps should the Government consider in order to reduce barriers to later-life working?

3.1     As a matter of priority, the Government should consider further how to reach the 3.3 million people aged 50 to 64 classified as economically inactive, and including 0.6 million who say they would like to work if they could find suitable employment. These ‘inactives’ are not included in measures delivered via Jobcentre Plus as they are not actively seeking work and are not JSA claimants. They are a particularly hard-to-reach group, but outnumber unemployed 50 to 64 year olds by 10 to 1.

3.2     More generally, New Middle Age has identified four inter-related strands which future policies need to address to support those between 50 and retirement, including the central issue of working lives: image, economic analysis, cross-generational approaches and workplace reform.

3.3     New image: New Middle Age needs a new image. A quarter of people currently in their 50s could live to be 100. So 50 is a midway, not an end point, and not the beginning of older or old age. We need policy makers to promote an image of New Middle Age as an active, skilled and productive generation – evidenced by facts and not outdated stereotypes of dependency and limited abilities.

  • Two thirds of 50 to 64 year olds are in work. Over half are in professional, managerial or skilled jobs. Only 3 in every 100 are unemployed.
  • A third of 50-64s are ‘economically inactive’ – not in work and not actively looking for work, but only one in ten say they are retired. Most are not working due to personal circumstances, primarily health or caring, and at least a fifth would work if they could find a suitable job.
  • Nearly all 50 to 64 year olds are internet users and three quarters use a computer every day. Research has shown that having over 50s in the workforce does not reduce technology enhanced productivity.
  • Only 4 in every 100 people aged 50 to 64 are widowed. Over two thirds are married, but one sixth are divorced, one eighth are single and 3 in every hundred are in civil partnerships. 1 in 8 have dependent-aged children.   More detail can be found here.

3.4    New economics: New Middle Age calls for a new economic analysis and new economic strategies which will allow the unique contribution of those in New Middle Age – in terms of skills, experience and productive potential – to be fully realised. As the population ages we will need to draw more on the resources of New Middle Age. If the skills, experience and productive potential of the 50 to retirement generation are not used to the full there will be losses to economy and society, through lost productive potential, lower tax revenues and higher benefit costs.

  • The contribution of the working population aged 50 to retirement will be important to maintain economic growth as the population ages. Increasing working lives by one year could generate a 1% increase in GDP.
  • Employers will need to draw on the 50 to retirement workforce to meet future labour demand. With birth rates now substantially lower than during the 1960s baby boom, demand for labour will in future no longer be met in full by new young people joining the labour market. In 2014 it was forecast that over the following 10 years there would be 13.5 million job vacancies but only 7 million school and college leavers to fill them.
  • Employees will want to work longer to provide a sufficient income in retirement from savings and pensions.
  • ‘Older workers’, those over 50, have skills, experience and proven productive potential. Evidence from Germany shows that productivity peaks in our 50s.
  • Family carers provide care for vulnerable people who would otherwise need support from the state. New Middle Age is the peak age for caring, and providing jobs that allow them to balance work and caring will offset burgeoning social care costs.
  • Employment of people aged 50 to retirement does not disadvantage or displace younger people in the workforce. Rather, evidence shows that increased employment of people over 50 may lead to increased spending and boost job creation.   More detail can be found here.

3.5    New approach to age: New Middle Age calls for effective strategies applicable across the generations to build age equality and enhance cross-generational awareness. Inter-generational strategies can increase effectiveness and build cross-generational awareness. Policies which make a special case for those in New Middle Age, or any generation, risk further embedding age related discrimination. But solutions may need to be tailored to meet the specific requirements of the 50 to retirement generation if their contribution is to be fully realised.

  • Legislation should be implemented and enforced, and updated where necessary, to protect those in New Middle Age, and across all generations, against discrimination on the basis of their age, and where age discrimination is combined with other factors including gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity or disability.
  • In employment, specific issues of age inequality can be identified in pay, recruitment and access to training. Public policy should ensure age is not a barrier to opportunity in the workplace.
  • Public policy should aim to develop frameworks of legislation and good practice which offer general benefit but which can be tailored to the requirements of specific groups with particularly beneficial effect.
  • An inter-generational approach is efficient as it offers one set of solutions which can be applied in different situations. It is also more equitable and has the potential to build inter-generational awareness as people of different ages see their various needs addressed by the same solutions.   More detail can be found here.

3.6    New workplace: New Middle Age calls for new, flexible and effective workplaces where the potential contribution and economic productivity of those aged from 50 to retirement is fully realised, to the advantage of both employers and economy. The 50 to retirement generation is highly productive and highly skilled, as evidenced by current research, and their contribution will be essential to meeting future labour demand. But with one in three outside the workforce, more should be done to create the jobs they want to do. A new deal at work is needed to get as many of them as possible back into work.

  • Better job design could create jobs that better suit more over 50s in work, especially those considering early exit from the labour market and those already outside the workforce. A variety of strategies could create jobs good for both employers and employees such as flexible working, reduced or annualised hours, remote working, job sharing and phased retirement.
  • In-work training should be available to the 50 to retirement workforce to support their continued development and help them achieve their potential.
  • Later life educational opportunities are needed to refresh and update skills of those who have been outside the workforce, for shorter or extended periods. They would also allow people who have elected to down-skill, perhaps due to personal circumstances, to get careers back on track when they are ready, making sure they can work to their potential. All courses should provide recognised and accredited qualifications.
  • Returner programmes help workforce re-entry and more employers should be encouraged to offer them. The focus is on providing relatively short-term in-work programmes designed to re-hone skills and competencies. Current programmes often offer the prospect of continued employment. These programmes should not be age restricted but are well suited to later career returners.   More detail can be found here.
  1. What further steps need to be taken to reduce age discrimination in recruitment, and what evidence is there that an employer-led approach will be effective?

4.1    Recruitment is a particularly difficult issue. While employers have begun to address measures to increase over 50 inclusion in their workplaces, evidence shows that employer bias continues, and anecdotal evidence indicates that recruitment agencies and websites are also resistant to change.

4.2     Research published by Anglia Ruskin University in August 2017 quantified age discrimination in the UK recruitment process. In the study, 1,836 fictitious job applications were made between 2013 and 2015 to a range of firms across all sectors in matched pairs of fictitious 28-year-old male/female applicants and fictitious 50-year-old male/female applicants. The study found that younger male applicants were 3.6 times more likely than older male applicants to receive an invitation for a job interview, and younger female applicants were 5.3 times more likely than older female applicants to receive a job interview invitation. The full study can be viewed here.

4.3     Advertisements continue to use indirect bias in job descriptions eg a person specification of ‘digital native’. Other anecdotal evidence has referred to difficulties in those over 50 using online recruitment platforms eg being unable to select university graduation before a set date in the registration process.

4.4     Work done by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation to establish best practice guidelines is welcome. However, bias in the industry is still a problem. More needs to be done to encourage the application of best practice. Possibilities might include industry self-regulation through agency registration criteria or an agency or employer kite mark. Legal test cases could also be considered by industry bodies or the CPS.

  1. How successful are Government policies on re-training and re-entry likely to be in helping people stay in work or find new employment? Have relevant recommendations on reforming Jobcentre Plus and welfare-to-work services been implemented?

Paragraph 3.6 discusses re-training and workplace re-entry.

  1. Is there a place for employer incentives?

If evidence suggests that industry best practice methods (largely cost-free) are not yielding results, as in the case of recruitment processes, (detailed in section 4) incentives around tax, National Insurance or apprenticeship levies and training support might need to be considered. There will be inevitable costs to the Exchequer.

  1. How should Government and employers respond to and improve age diversity in the workforce? How could the prospects of older workers be improved in the context of the Taylor review of modern working practices?

These issues are covered in section 3 above.

  1. Is the Government’s approach addressing the different needs of women, carers, people with long-term health conditions and disabilities and BME groups among the older workforce?

The Government approach does not seek to discriminate between various groups of older workers. However, given the absence of the ability to pursue claims for dual discrimination under the Equalities Act, employees have limited resource in the event of discrimination on the basis of age and another characteristic.

Evidence continues to indicate that older women, older carers, older people with health or disability issues and older people with minority ethnicity experience greater difficulty in the workplace (University of Kent Report for Age UK here). Regional differences in age related experience in the workplace can also be identified from ONS data.

More information can be found on the New Middle Age website.

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