The Snakes and ladders labour market facing older job seekers

Chris BallThe employment stats were released this week, and have added better news on employment to Monday’s “Growth is back” headlines. If this is true, what kind of upturn is it and what will the impact be on jobs and work?


On one hand there is now good evidence of rising job opportunities. In the period from May to July 2013 overall employment was up while unemployment numbers (measured by both the Labour Force Survey and claimant numbers) were down.


So yes, job opportunities are rising – there were 80,000 more people in work in broad 16 to 64 age range in the last quarter. This brought the total employed up to 29.84 million and resulted in 24,000 fewer unemployed. But unemployment will be too high for a while yet. With 7.7 per cent unemployment we are still above the Bank of England’s own target of 7.0 per cent.


Moreover, youth unemployment continues to rise – there were 9,000 more young people out of work in May to July than in the previous three months. Nearly a million younger people unemployed is a shocking picture.


Job vacancies reportedly are on the up (there were 531,000 for June to August 2013, up 7,000 from March to May) but what kinds of jobs is the question? Our labour market already has shortages of key skills but this doesn’t seem to be where the growth is.


The journey back to work for the unemployed is as hazardous as a real life game of snakes and ladders however. For every handy ladder leading to the promised uplands of a decent job, there is a dirty great snake waiting to gobble up the intrepid jobseeker. Certainly we seem a long way from a “you’ve never had it so good” style election campaign for the Conservatives in 2015.


The TUC reckons that a worker putting in 40 hours a week is £30.30 a week worse off than in 2008 after inflation has been taken into account. Studies have shown that four in every five jobs created since 2010 are in low paid sectors, so we are not seeing much of a feel-good factor at present.


If the economy really is picking up, expect to hear more about the skills problem however – and the fact that almost two million more people (mostly in work) are living in Britain than in 2008, as a result of migration. Many continue to come in response to our skills shortages though it would be good to see more of the unemployed (older and younger alike) given a chance to train for the jobs on offer.


The economy is strongly polarized in different ways – not least between public and private sectors. The recovery is unmistakably being led in the private sector.


While private sector employment rose by 114,000 in the three months to June 2013, public sector employment fell by 34,000 during the same period.


Given that a key source of economic resilience over the past few years has been in the rising numbers of self-employed and part-time workers, it may be surprising that both of these categories of workers have declined in the recent period. (Numbers of self employed fell by 27,000, whilst part-time working was down by 15,000.) So are these reductions in part-time and self-employment good or bad news? It is hard to say. One interpretation is that these forms of working were always most common among people who had little real choice. They (or many of them) took part-time work or ventured out into self-employment, whilst deep down yearning for ordinary full-time jobs with predictable pay. Given a choice many would revert to more standard working. Self-employment may offer advantages but in a recession people are more exposed to the uncertainties that go with the territory.


TAEN of course will be commenting as usual on the position of the older worker and jobseeker. There will be many in the media who refuse to spin their story as anything other than the inexorable rise of the older, state pension age plus, worker, but there is another side that remains largely neglected.


I spoke to a BBC journalist last week about this – she wasn’t really interested. The story about the continuing struggle of the much larger number of people in their fifties who need and want to work is ignored in favour of a simplistic celebration of burgeoning “oldie” workers. (They make great pictures, don’t you see?)


Yes, the number of people over 65 in work is indeed rising (by 3,000 in the May to July period) and it achieved and has remained over one million since then. But interestingly, all the increase was accounted for by men aged over 65. Where are the increasing numbers of older women? How much are we reading about their struggles?


They are getting used to working beyond the old female SPA of 60 probably, or just quitting to take up caring roles for older and younger family members. Whatever, we should take on board that the experience of older workers and jobseekers in the recession requires a gendered interpretation.


This story about older workers really demands attention to the fifty plus age range if the news is to be other than entertainment. The fifty plus age group in work increased by 95,000 in the three months to the end of July and now totals 7.72 million, yet both its contribution and unemployment travails had far less comment than the “one million 65 plus workers” headlines of a few months ago.


Long term unemployment continues to bedevil this age group – there are a total of 194,000 long term (12 months plus) unemployed fifty plus workers reported in this week’s figures – the highest proportion in any age group. No less than 46.7 per cent of those who are without jobs in the fifty plus age group are now counted as long term unemployed.


Another angle is provided by the redundancy figures. Although the overall number of redundancies in the UK fell in the second quarter of 2013 to its lowest level (123,000) since the first quarter of 2011, the number of people aged fifty plus who were made redundant (49,000) was the highest since the third quarter of 2009.


Is the continuing decline in public sector jobs making this skew inevitable because of its higher representation among mature and older staff? It seems a plausible explanation.


Also, it might be surmised that older workers are the most obvious “winners” in voluntary redundancy exercises because of their longer service and therefore higher redundancy payments. They could be simply offering themselves as volunteers for redundancy, ready to go and take the money.


Some will argue that older people are being “leant on” to leave. This may also be true, though the element voting with their feet in any redundancy exercise, should not be underestimated. People over 50 represented no less than 40 per cent of those made redundant in the second quarter of 2013. With 7.2 per cent of the workforce in the age range 50 to 64 facing redundancy, they were by far the most endangered age cohort. The number heading for the exit doors is little short of a flood.


Fortunately, many of these older redundant workers are showing a high level of resilience. Nearly three out of 10 who were successful in finding jobs after redundancy had secured those new jobs by 13 weeks after redundancy. This suggests a “get up and go” attitude that may avoid many of the problems seen in the 1980s when a dramatic spike in long term worklessness was seen among older men made redundant.


As I have said, we don’t know too much about the quality of the jobs they are taking but my fear is that some of the decline in part-time and self employed work done by older people will be traded in for other forms of insecurity – zero hours contracts being the obvious example.


If long term unemployment (and its greater risks) is the biggest snake on the board for the older person in today’s labour market, it is encouraging that at least some of them are managing to find handy ladders to get them out of danger, but for all that, finding and retaining work at fifty plus remains a hazardous business.


Chris Ball is Chief Executive of TAEN – The Age and Employment Network. Unions may affiliate to TAEN and a new individual membership offer is now available for £10 a year. Organisation members and individual supporter members receive information free and concessions on TAEN events. See


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