Tim Whitaker: Sadiq Khan should become a champion for London’s older workers

Tim Whitaker: Sadiq Khan should become a champion for London’s older workers

Sadiq Khan recently claimed that he’ll still be London’s Mayor in at least 22 years’ time. The remark was made tongue in cheek, but the desire to continue working until a good age – in Khan’s case it would be 74 – is one many older people in London have but cannot fulfil because of difficulties they experience in the labour market. This is even though it looks to be recovering post-pandemic, with reports that job vacancies are difficult to fill.

While young workers rightly received a lot of attention and support during Covid, the evidence is that they recovered from its impacts more rapidly than the over 50s. It is now older workers, and not only in London, who are experiencing the effects of scarring in the job market and risk being left behind. In all the grand economic recovery plans for London, the stark lacuna has been the plight of older workers

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 57,000 Londoners aged 50-64 were unemployed at the end of 2021 – an increase of 18,000 from the previous year. The unemployment rate for these workers is five per cent higher than for the rest of the UK. Less than a fifth (18 per cent) of those aged 50 to 70 years who left or lost their job since the pandemic have returned to work.

The big challenge of becoming unemployed at 50 is getting back into the job market – you are less likely to get a job than unemployed younger workers. And those who are in low paid and manual jobs face being forced out. The lack of skills among those workers is striking, and the sad evidence is that as you age in the workplace, you receive less training.

Alarmingly, what has been called the “great retirement” is also causing problems – the increase in “economic inactivity” of over 50s, particularly men, who have stopped working during and since the pandemic. National ONS data show a rise of 228,000 in the 50-65s age group . Those who’ve left jobs give a mixture of reasons, including ageism, health and mental wellbeing.

Worryingly, many are resigned to this position. Only a third of over 60s say they would look at returning to work, which means a great loss of expertise and talent. In London, 77 per cent of over 60s had not gone back to paid work since losing or exiting their job. Those who enter “retirement” prematurely in this way face great uncertainty about their future income and savings.

Wise Age, a leading age and employment charity specialising in employment support for over 50s in London, is arguing for a London-wide strategy for older workers to be championed and led by the Mayor. A core recommendation we make is not just that there should be more bespoke training support and better advice for older workers, but also policy measures at a London level to address the drivers of the current problems, most notably ageism in workplaces and more employers’ lack of age friendly practices.

Older workers experience ageism in recruitment, with well over a third reporting feeling disadvantaged in applying for jobs. In contrast, age friendly employers devise flexible working opportunities, promote career development, provide support with health conditions, but crucially also create a culture to allow workers of all ages to work together.

We are calling for a new Mayoral Challenge on ageism in employment, supported by a London toolkit for age friendly employers. Other enlightened cities, such as Manchester, are providing support for their older workers and pushing for age friendly workplaces. We need some policy levelling up to help London.

Despite age appearing as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, it doesn’t get the prominence or attention required, and human resources departments need to place age at the heart of diversity and inclusion to ensure a fully inclusive labour market.

Along with remedying unfair discrimination, this would also makes good business sense. The Treasury estimates that a one per cent increase in the employment of 50-64 s would increase GDP by £5.7 billion, thanks to added income tax and national insurance revenue.

As London becomes an ageing city, our call is for Sadiq Kahn to become a London age work champion, and walk the walk as well as talking the talk.

Tim Whitaker is a consultant working on age and employment issues and is a Trustee of Wise Age. Follow Wise Age on Twitter. Photograph from Greater London Authority.  

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