The retirement cliff-edge is a thing of the past – so why hasn’t our benefits and employment support model changed too?
This year, we have had a Spring Budget that promised much for older workers and an Autumn Statement that did not mention them at all.
Our Deputy Director for Work, Dr Emily Andrews, analyses what the year has meant in terms of government support for older workers and what the future should bring.
Search the documents from last week’s Autumn Statement for the phrase ‘older workers’, and your computer will return zero results. After the high of last March’s supposed ‘back-to-work Budget’ for the over 50s, this week’s update was a serious comedown. The problem remains. All indicators show that employment among 50-64s is still well below pre-pandemic levels. People aged 60-64 have the highest rates of poverty in this country – because they have the highest rates of worklessness.
Yet only one in ten out-of-work 50-64s are accessing employment support. And they get the worst results when they do: fewer than one in five over 60s receive a job outcome from the Work and Health programme We cannot afford to let this issue drift. Any government seeking to pursue the planned increases in the State Pension Age has to get serious about dedicated measures to promote better access to employment for people in their 50s and 60s.
This is particularly important for those on the lowest incomes, those without access to private pensions savings and those facing additional barriers to work. This wouldn’t be a problem if the measures announced in the spring were sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge. But while there is some promise here, the risk that older jobseekers will miss out from extra support is only heightened by their complete absence from the Autumn Statement.
If we lose focus on workers in their 50s and 60s, they will be left behind from work and health support
Let’s start with the good – or at least the better. In March, the Chancellor pledged significant investment in new support for people whose health presents a major barrier to employment. More than half of that group are age 50 or older.
The largest of these was Universal Support (£925m over five years) – a new intensive support programme whose early roll-out has now begun. Other initiatives included trialling new local hubs to integrate health and work services, and placing employment advisors into hubs for people dealing with Musculo-skeletal conditions.
We now have some extra funding announced for these programmes – as well as an extension of the ‘Restart’ programme for all long-term unemployed people. But just because a lot of the people who will access these programmes will be 50+, doesn’t mean they will be helped by them. On the Work and Health programme fewer than one in five (18%) of people age 60+ get a job within two years, well below the rates for younger age groups. With age fading into the background as a consideration, there is a risk older participants on the new initiatives will also be left behind.
The Mid-life MOT concept is a nod to the need for all of us to think differently and expansively about what our work and financial life looks like in our 60s and beyond.
We need dedicated, targeted employment support for people seeking work over 50
At the very least, we need age-specific service standards for these new programmes. The government needs to hold itself and its partners accountable for delivering much better outcomes for older workers than these previous initiatives. Our best practice guidance on employment support for older workers offers a good foundation on which better performance within all-age services could be built. Ideally, though, we want to see government follow the lead of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, who are commissioning a specific 50+ strand within its broader packages of support for people who are economically inactive. We are excited to begin evaluating this programme when it starts taking on customers in the new year.
A government that was really serious about making the most of the workforce, promoting growth, and reducing poverty would be going one step further on 50+ employment. They would be rolling out a national programme of 50+ employment support – to provide targeted, tailored support for this group, and maintain a sustained focus on doing better for people in their 60s in particular. The issue for existing programmes isn’t just one of performance – it is also about engagement. Only one in ten people out of work age 50-64 are accessing support to help them get back into work. The Chancellor’s announcement of further punitive measures for people who do not move into work will act as a further deterrent to those who might need and want government support to navigate the jobs market.
The next government has some good foundations to build on – if it can generate some real ambition
There are good things going on in government that could make a real difference to all of our employment prospects in our 50s and 60s. At the last spending review, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) received funding for a network of 50+ champions in Jobcentre Plus – and their numbers have now been doubled. These champions work to promote and support efforts within Jobcentre Plus to get jobseekers over 50 back into work, and support them to plan for the future. This programme is in its infancy – but we have met lots of champions who are passionate and knowledgeable and want to make a difference.
DWP should continue pushing itself to make the most of this enthusiasm: testing new approaches to digital support, training, coaching and employer engagement, sharing that learning across the network. And they should be curious and transparent about the impact this initiative is having. The Mid-life MOT pilots in the private sector are now well underway. It was great to see the government putting investment behind learning how to make this good idea work in practice. They should be gearing up to transparently publish that learning – from what didn’t work as well as what did, so we can all use it to fill in some gaps on how to successfully mobilise this intervention. Post-election, this testing and trialling work needs to continue. But a truly forward-thinking set of politicians would be shifting their thinking on employment and retirement into the 21st century.
The retirement cliff-edge is a thing of the past – but our benefits and employment support system are still built as if it isn’t. The Mid-life MOT concept is a nod to the need for all of us to think differently and expansively about what our work and financial life looks like in our 60s and beyond – and be supported to do that. But the systems around us need to change at the same time, to give us all access to the financial and employment support that we need to thrive all the way up to state pension age, and beyond.