Tim Whitaker: London must embrace age-friendly employment practices, starting at the top

Tim Whitaker: London must embrace age-friendly employment practices, starting at the top

It’s official. One of the UK’s fastest growing industries is in punditry, reports, media coverage and prognoses about older workers. From the Chancellor to the governor of the Bank of England, we hear of growing economic inactivity, particularly that of early retirees, creating inflation and putting undue pressure on interest rates. Worse, those early retirees are spending too much on cruises and in golf club shops, reducing labour supply and adding to job vacancies – in short creating the “older worker problem”.

It was hoped that the budget would fix this. Yet unsurprisingly, apart from a few measures, the lack of a coherent strategy for older workers represents a continuing missed opportunity. In London, in contrast to other cities such as Manchester, we haven’t had that policy debate, although the London Assembly’s economy committee ran an inquiry into the financial security and employment of older Londoners, hearing from experts in the field including Wise Age the charity for older workers in London of which I am vice chair.

The picture of older workers’ employment in London is complicated. On the downside, the city’s overall unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country, though for older workers this has declined, apart from for the long term unemployed. Economic inactivity is above average – but note that 30 per cent of all Londoners are economically inactive, regardless of age. And older people’s economic inactivity isn’t just a result of early retirement. Health problems and caring responsibilities are part of the story too.

Furthermore, the broad category “older worker” conceals massive disadvantages based on ethnicity, gender and being disabled. And the number of precarious jobs occupied by London’s older workers is high and linked to precarious households and homes. Almost a fifth of older workers earn less than the London Living Wage, according to the Living Wage Foundation. Low quality and low paid employment that doesn’t keep up with the rising cost of living risks fuelling future pensioner poverty.

On the semi-upside, London leads the league table for economically inactive workers who are considering a return to work. And older Londoners still tend to work later into life than the rest of country, having, at 14 per cent, the highest rate of over-65s in jobs. In some local authority areas, such as the City of London, Kensington & Chelsea, Camden and Westminster, the rate is above 20 per cent.

Yet barriers facing older workers can be immense. They receive less training than younger colleagues and, despite the rhetoric about it, flexible working isn’t always offered. But the big elephant in the room in policy terms is employer ageism affecting recruitment and retention of older workers. This needs tackling.

The economy committee has written to Sadiq Khan, proposing more and better support for over- 50s seeking employment, tailored to health and caring needs. It also rightly argues that age-friendly employment is urgently required across London, starting with the Greater London Authority (GLA) itself.

The committee recommends the Mayor encourages London employers to sign up to the age-friendly employer pledge – a nationwide programme for recognising the importance of older workers – and to adopt age-friendly practices, along with producing an employers’ toolkit for older workers following the good practice of Manchester and Wales. And the Mayor needs to have a better handle on the views of older workers about their employment issues, rather than the simplistic narrative of labour market exit.

The Mayor must formally respond to the committee’s recommendations by the 16 June. There could be some positive signs. Now 53 years old, he is himself a flourishing older worker looking to extend his employment by winning next year’s election. The GLA can easily become an age-friendly employer. Yet only 4.3 per cent of its staff are over 60, most of them long-serving personnel. This raises the question of whether older workers are being recruited to City Hall.

The Mayor can easily put effort into publicising the importance of age-friendly employment and the value of older workers across London. Looking forward, the fastest-growing age group in the city over the next 10 years is expected to be the over-65s, so the GLA should plan ahead. But, as Wise Age said in its evidence to the committee, it’s also about having a strategic approach to London’s older workers. That requires a different narrative with a better policy debate across the capital. London’s older workers deserve it and it’s good for business too.

Tim Whitaker is vice chair of Wise Age. Follow Tim on Twitter. Photograph from Wise Age website.

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