‘Debate on ageing workforce needs to address inequality’

Professor Chris Phillipson warns that we are facing a vacuum in policy discussions about the ageing workforce and urgently need forums for debate about the implications.

Serious older man sitting staring into the distance


Chris Phillipson is Professor of Sociology and Social Gerontology at the University of Manchester. He is co-editor of Precarity and Ageing: Understanding Risk and Insecurity in Later Life published this month by Policy Press. He spoke to workingwise.co.uk about his research on the ageing workforce.

Workingwise.co.uk: Do you think there is enough interest in policy circles about the issues associated with extended retirement?

Professor Chris Phillipson: I don’t think so. I think the decision to raise the pension age was based on economic concerns which were detached from concerns about the quality of jobs and work that might be available, especially for women due to labour changes, for instance, job losses in the traditionally female-dominated retail sector, and the fact that women tend to be concentrated in lower paid jobs. Initially there was some interest in these issues. You could argue that when Baroness Altmann was responsible for developing charters and so forth and giving advice on employing older workers that there was a period where there was some interest in government, but that impetus has pretty much collapsed now and been taken over by other concerns. There is a real vacuum at the present time as there is very little discussion. The assumption is that people will find positions and that there will be an expansion of things like self employment.

People over 50 are driving the rise in self employment, often because they haven’t got enough money for their pension. That’s a huge issue with self employment. The end result is a widening of insecurity and an increase in precariousness in the labour market on the one hand and greater flexibility on the other. Some people are doing self employed work alongside their other work. Another factor is the potential role of automation on jobs. The pension age was lifted partly because of worries about employers having enough people to fill their roles, but how will that be affected by a changing labour market?

Workingwise.co.uk: Is there too much emphasis on positivity about ageing and is this in danger of obscuring real practical issues are extended working lives for many? Given good quality work can be good for health, what can be done to develop more opportunities for older workers? 

Professor Phillipson: There have been some very positive upbeat assessment of ageing, particularly in the US, where it is seen as a new time of life. Camilla Cavendish’s book Extra Time is an example in the UK.  That approach is not necessarily wrong in itself. We do have an ageing population and it is important not to be downbeat. If you look at certain segments of the baby boom generation – a significant group – we can see they are changing their lives and embracing more ambitious lifestyles compared to previous people of their age. Gerentologists talk about the Third Age. There is a positive side. The issue that is underplayed in these accounts is that, while some people may have more freedom, others will have a lot of caring responsibilities.

Children are leaving home later so there is an extended period of dependency. Over 50s may also have grandparenting responsibilities or have to care for partners or parents.  It is not necessarily a time of a huge amount of freedom. If you extend pension ages that puts pressure on the people with caring responsibilities and that is likely to be something that becomes more of an issue for women’s groups in particular since women still typically do most of the care, particularly if services continue to face cutbacks.

That narrative of embracing ageing as a time of possibility is all fine, but it is partial. For every baby boomer who flies off to the Caribbean or tours Norwegian lakes there is another who is trapped in a series of responsibilities which make this freedom seem unreal. It is important to have an outlet to discuss these issues. It will be some time before the government comes back with any interest in them.

Workingwise.co.uk: Does the government need to think more about topping up gig working/part-time wages in the run-up to retirement? What is your view on the universal basic income?

Professor Phillipson: There’s an ongoing discussion about how gig workers are treated in the tax system and whether they should be given more favourable treatment. With regard to universal basic income there is a parallel argument that if everyone had a right to a certain level of services when they need them that they wouldn’t need a universal basic income. At the moment it is a bit of a lottery, for instance, if you are a carer the support you get depends on where you live, your income and what local services there are and that inequality will get worse. Addressing that is as important as a universal basic income. If you leave the services element unaddressed people who cannot afford to pay out lots of money for services will be worse affected. We do need to get the services right so people can spend more time in employment. At the moment we are trying to get people to work longer while cutting back on services.

Workingwise.co.uk: Who should provide the training necessary to ensure all workers keep up to date with the fast pace of change? And what about rights around gig working – collectives are currently working on all sorts of packages of support, including training, health, pensions, etc. Many gig workers are isolated, particularly home workers. Do you see this as an area which is ripe for more research? Should more be done to promote best practice in gig working, for instance, rather than simply opposing it?

Professor Phillipson: We should be arguing for government intervention when it comes to gig workers’ rights. For instance, it should be mandatory to include gig workers in training as companies grow their short-term, gig-type employment. That would give gig workers more options and enable them to move around the labour market. Some people do gig-type jobs because it fits their needs and they are happy to move in and out of it. A larger group, however, feel forced to work in the gig economy because there is no alternative and we need to think about their needs more carefully.

There is a larger debate about the absence of training throughout the life course. The government promised to address this. There is a lot of evidence that it is crucial to address this issue for people in their 40s and 50s. It is harder training when you get past your 40s so there need to be different approaches and ageism in the workforce also needs to be addressed.

Workingwise.co.uk: Are they taking into account changing patterns of working in the lead-up to retirement and ongoing changes in how we work generally [for instance, more insecure work to deal with caring and health issues]?

Professor Phillipson: There is a lot of work being done with regard to flexible working and the extent to which employers are providing it in ways that people are able to access it. It is also important that flexible jobs are quality jobs.

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