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What will encourage older people back to work or not to drop out early? Older people are not a homogeneous group, but benefits and tax changes are unlikely to be enough.
This week has seen a big focus once again on news that the Government is considering tax breaks and benefits changes to get older people back to work. This has come about as a result of a range of reports on the number of older people who dropped out of the workplace in the pandemic period. But are benefits changes and tax breaks going to make a difference?
The idea is that people who have dropped out due to early retirement or health or caring issues will need to return because of the cost of living crisis. But if you need to return a tax break, while it means more money in your pocket, won’t have been the deciding factor and if you don’t need to return, will a tax break make a difference? In short, is money the reason people are leaving or is it something else?
Of course, it is impossible to lump everyone’s reasons in together just as it is impossible to generalise about anyone over 50. But those with their ear to the ground feel that it is more about making the workplace one that people want to stay in for longer, be that through more flexible working [work life balance features hugely in our recent workingwise.co.uk survey], more opportunity to try new things, job redesign so that jobs are more varied and less intense, more sense of being valued rather than merely tolerated and so on.
Many of the people we talk to for our Working Lives series have been through huge change during their working lives – ironically, the stereotype is that older people can’t cope with change. Some have been through multiple restructures, redundancies and so forth. Many have been scarred by their time at work through bad management, bullying and more. The demands on us all have increased exponentially over our working lifetimes. I remember people having assistants and support back in the day.
Nowadays most people are self-administering. There is no team to do all the admin. Emails are non-stop. Everyone wants everything yesterday and if they don’t get it they’ll just send you a load more emails to wade through. It’s not that technology hasn’t had huge positives either, but the experience in the workplace can be very intensive and many people are also working overtime regularly while also looking after children or parents or both. The current focus on wellbeing at work is welcome, but not if it’s just words and stuff about yoga and eating fruit, important as that is. It has to be about how we do work because work is a large part of the wellbeing problem.
Another issue is ageism, which is widely perceived by older workers. Many of the people we have spoken to who have been out of work during the pandemic lost their jobs at the start or even before the first lockdown and have really struggled to get back in. The first part of the pandemic was characterised by a lack of job vacancies, but that rapidly changed as we reopened. However, many people had been out of work for some months by then and the longer you are out the harder it is to get back in, especially if employers are biased against you or think you are going to retire in the next few years [even though research shows older workers tend to stay in their roles longer than younger ones].
Over the last decade or more, we have seen the growth of successful returner programmes for those who have been out of work for several years, mainly women who have left the workplace to raise their families. These could be useful for older workers looking to return, but as those running the programmes know, it is not enough to offer mentors and buddies and support, the work culture has to be right if you want to not just attract people back but keep them.
So tax breaks and benefits changes may be the way the Government goes to attract older workers back – and if for the over 50s why not for the under 50s to stop them dropping out in the first place – but there needs to be a wider discussion about how the workplace functions in the world as it is today, rather than decades – or longer – ago.
*Mandy Garner is editor of workingwise.co.uk.