The government has been prompting older people back to the workplace. In August, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride suggested they hop on bikes and work for Deliveroo. Headlines created an image of over-50s who weren’t working as “resting” – failing to do their bit for the nation’s recovery as a reserve army able to jump into the labour market to solve shortages. Unfortunately, London’s older workers who aren’t working are a more complicated lot, with lots of problems.
Research released this week by the West London Alliance borough partnership, conducted for it by the Institute for Employment Studies, paints a stark picture. Providers of employment support across that part of the capital and unemployed older workers themselves were interviewed. The report reveals the inequalities facing over-50s in that part of London. Universal Credit and Census data show the generally higher rates of disadvantage among older people in west London than in the country as a whole, with 15 per cent of 50-64s claiming Universal Credit compared with 10 per cent of those in the rest of England.
It argues for the provision of better-tailored and targeted one-to-one support, which addresses additional needs of the older unemployed in the areas of health, skills and literacy. It recommends increased co-ordination between borough support services and job centres, together with more employer engagement to promote age-positive practices.
All of this is very sensible and it is commendable that the West London Alliance has commissioned this much-needed research. Yet what jumps out from the report is the consistent theme from its interviewees that their age counted against them when they were applying for work. And while it is clear that there are a lot of employment support activities catering for this age group, older workers haven’t received the same attention from London policy makers as young people.
We need a new agenda for looking at London’s older workers – one which addresses the key problems faced by many of them. The category is a broad one which contains and can conceal a range of particular disadvantages in securing employment, including disability and long-term health problems, which are rising. Across the UK’s 3.5 million economically inactive 50-64s, 42 per cent gave being sick or disabled as the reason for not looking for work. Providers of employment support in London also report seeing more mental health issues. Caring responsibilities for others can be another barrier to older Londoners seeking work.
Tailored support is the watchword for helping unemployed over-50s, but simply accessing the support already available is a problem for older Londoners. A more deep-seated one for London’s policy makers is how best to ensure the labour market is fair for older workers, given that employer ageism is cited by so many. And research just released by Age UK London has found that only 13 per cent of over-50s actually in work in the capital agree that they are valued.
Sadiq Khan has just signed up the Greater London Authority to the Age Friendly Employer Pledge. That is fine, but it doesn’t means organisations will automatically employ more older workers without economic incentives or cultural change. If that change doesn’t happen, pensioner poverty in London will get worse. At 25 per cent, poverty levels among older Londoners are among the highest in the country as it is.
Before the pandemic, there were rosy expectations that older people would choose to work until later in their lives. But now, we’re seeing participation rates drop and, for some older Londoners the spectre looms of never working again looms, along with with enduring financial misery.
Tim Whitaker is a Trustee of Wise Age, specialists in age and employment issues. Follow WiseAge on X/Twitter. Photograph from Age UK London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year.