Forgotten Generation: Could Devolution Help The North East’s Over-50s?
ALTHOUGH unemployment remains static in the North East with more people in full-time and part-time jobs, one group that’s been overlooked is the over-50s
True, most men and women in this age cohort are in paid work, with a significant minority of middle-class public and private sector professionals having opted for the four-day week. Some are ‘WOOPies’ (well-off old age pensioners) who have retired early on ‘good’ occupational pensioners with mortgages paid off.
Yet, the stark reality is that thousands remain ‘economically inactive’ and excluded from the labour market, while more than one million people aged 50 to 64 in England say they would be delighted to take a job if offered one.
According to a recent report by the Centre for Better Ageing a third of 50-64-year-olds in the North East are caught in an “unemployment trap”.
In Newcastle, about 1,000 people in this age group claim jobseeker’s allowance and thousands more have been “parked” on disability benefits. These are the “hidden unemployed” - a growing minority of the over-50s who have been made redundant and can’t find a way back into work.
165,200 are economically inactive in our region – the highest rate for this age group in England. As the researcher Jemma Mouland notes: “Once they have lost their job the over-50s struggle much more than any other age group to get back into work.”
Pre-retirement worklessness is a class related thing and affects both men and women. Most are former working-class, blue-collar/blouse workers living in the most de-industrialised neighbourhoods across the region.
Thousands are the victims of globalisation and automation which has caused long-term unemployment leaving them consigned to the economic scrapheap.
They are disconnected from job opportunities, even though some live near major employment, development sites and retail parks. They don’t see them, think they are not for them and lack the right skills.
Large numbers of older people live in communities based on the north bank of the Tyne and in former coal mining towns and villages in south east Northumberland which have high rates of poverty, unemployment, low skill sets or mental health and few qualifications.
Most 55-year olds left school at 16. They’re less likely to be equipped to compete in a digital, fast paced job market which favours IT-savvy young adults in their mid-twenties. Competition for unskilled jobs is fierce. In the North of the Tyne sub-region 170 applicants chasing two jobs is not uncommon.
Research done by Anna Round of IPPR North reveals that women over 50 are 25 times less likely to be offered a job interview than their peers in their late 20s. Overall, the younger candidates were four times more likely to be given an interview. Younger men were three times more likely to get an interview than their older peers over 50 while among women the gap was five times.
Age-based discrimination is rife across the region. The Carnegie Third Age Programme, which champion older people, points out that campaigns against ageism are having some impact.
Although some companies use subtle methods of employee recruitment for the under-45s, progressive employers have policies in place that fly in the face of ageism.
High street retailers like B&Q and M&S adopted schemes 25 years ago to help applicants over 50 These stores have a proportion of older workers. They’re less likely to take time off and are just as productive as younger employees.
Although local town halls like Newcastle and North Tyneside are one year into a Community Led Local Development (CLLD) programme pre-Brexit funded by the EU to narrow the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, more needs to be done by central government to address the needs of this post-50 cohort.
Government needs to re-prioritise adult skills and education to improve the life-chances of the ‘life behinds’ and left-outs. Adult education has been starved of resources, with a 45% drop in mature students returning to night classes.
According to a recent paper, ‘The Post-18 Review of Education and Funding: A review of a lifetime’, jointly published by the Campaign for Learning and NCFE (December 2018) less than 1% of the Government’s £20bn post-18 education budget is allocated to community and adult education
Opportunities for adults over 50 to update their skills have been cut to the bone. Even employment support by job centres is failing older people.
Only 1 in 6 over 50s were successful in getting into a job through the Government’s Work Programme. Yet, these are things that could help the older worker to get back onto the jobs ladder.
It’s premature to write these people off these people. Many have had decades of valuable work and life experience. Some possess useful transferable skills. But because of lack of opportunity and employer prejudice they don’t stand a chance in a 21st century competitive market.
The new North of Tyne Combined Authority with a £600m budget is in a prime position to tackle this issue. The three local councils (Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland) alongside Post-18 educational providers (with an extra £23m Adult Education budget), to their credit, are signed up to address the several barriers people aged over-50 face in returning to work.
Co-ordinated efforts by employment support and training providers, health services, the benefits system and government agencies must be targeted at individuals, so they are able to get the full range of support they need in a timely way.
Employers need to eradicate perceived age bias by adopting a positive approach to recruiting older workers and offering flexible job opportunities. And above all the Government must refresh its Industrial Strategy so that it benefits older people in the North East of England.
If we’re serious about creating an inclusive regional economy with an age diverse workplace in a post-Brexit era devolved government, business, civic and educational leaders need to re-emphasise the value of older workers.
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and a community governor with Newcastle City Learn. He writes in a personal capacity
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