Older workers are on the political radar like never before
We've seen the Prime Minister and others proposing significant policy interventions to encourage older workers back into employment. Now it's time to improve employment support.
Luke Price, our Senior Research and Policy Manager for Work, welcomes the realisation of the challenge around older people leaving the labour market and the enormous potential if parties can get their policies right.
Sometimes working in policy can feel a little like shouting into the void. Tirelessly working on an important issue that could make a difference to people’s lives only to be met with apparent indifference from the powers that be.
But this current moment in British politics is a welcome reminder that you need to keep saying something until you are sick of saying it, then say it some more. The recent announcements from both the Conservatives and Labour on the huge challenge of older workers leaving the labour market and the need to think differently about how we support them clearly shows the issue is riding high on the priority list for both parties.
To begin with, over the Christmas period, it was reported that the Prime Minister is personally overseeing plans that would see over 50s be offered a new personal mid-life MOT that will allow them to assess their financial health and their prospects for early retirement. The assessment will also be used to help identify opportunities for part-time or flexible work, mentoring and skills training. This was followed up by reports that ministers are considering reforms to disability benefits to enable people to keep claiming if they find work and change the assessment system that encourages people to prove they are too ill to work.
Also this week, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Jon Ashworth, outlined a series of proposals aimed at encouraging older people to return to employment.
The plans include new rights for flexible working arrangements including the right to work at home, the right to work fewer hours and the right to work at times that vary from week to week.
The government is also taking action on this agenda through their support for a bill that would give employees the right to request flexible working from day one of a new job. Once passed, this bill should bring significant benefits to workers, who currently have to wait until six months of employment to make flexible working requests.
The real work must now begin to make these proposals a reality and deliver the changes needed to bring material benefits to people’s lives and the economy.
It's great to hear those across the political spectrum recognise the importance of older workers, and the need to spread access to flexible work and back-to-work support. We know from ONS surveys that flexible working is the most important factor amongst older workers considering a return to work. Being able to work from home is also a major priority for 1 in 8 older workers contemplating returning to the workplace.
It's promising that new findings indicate that managers are more positive about flexible working than they have ever been with the vast majority believing that it increases productivity. Any messaging or signalling from government that all employers should be singing from this hymn sheet can only help to raise that flexible working positivity further.
There has also, rightly, been talk about how best to engage potential jobseekers and offer support outside of the Jobcentre in an effort to “de-stigmatise” the return to work.
Our evidence shows that bringing employment support to settings where we are comfortable can make a big difference. At present, older workers have to access support through the Jobcentre, even schemes tailored for them such as the 50Plus Champions. For a number of reasons, this might be an unappealing prospect for older workers and so instead they plough a lone furrow without the support they might need or simply decide to ride out the financial storm in retirement, regardless of how tough their situation might get.
We at Ageing Better would love to see all political parties be even bolder and take this de-stigmatising work even further: offering back-to-work support outside of the benefits regime entirely which could encourage a much greater range of people to seek help.
One way the government could make this happen quickly is by bringing forward the Shared Prosperity Funding for skills and employment support, so that it is available in the next financial year. This would allow the experienced network of community-based employment support providers to use their knowledge to tackle the immediate inactivity crisis, and create an opportunity for innovative new approaches to be tested.
We also welcome ambitions to build on the success of partnerships with the voluntary and private sector working at a local level as well as concentrating more resources to local communities. We're a close partner of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which has been working with people aged 50+ and local organisations to develop new services that provide more effective employment support for this older age group.
So, we know from experience the many benefits of having solutions that are grounded in the locality, that grapple with the challenges of a specific area and which listen to and use people’s experiences to improve what has gone before. The current political focus on older workers is welcome. The real work must now begin to make these proposals a reality and deliver the changes needed to bring material benefits to people’s lives and the economy.