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A new book looks at the evolution of policy on older workers across Europe and explores how, under the rhetoric of choice, some older workers risk being forced into precarious jobs in their later years.
It is rare that you read about the lived experiences of older workers in all their complexity and diversity, but a new book aims to give voice to older workers and chart how changing policy has trumpeted a message of choice, while consigning many to a more precarious old age.
The book, Older workers in transition: European experiences in a neoliberal era, looks at older workers’ experiences over the last decades, a topic which those involved say has been underresearched.
It is the first in a series of studies on rethinking work, ageing and retirement. Subjects to follow include self employment, the menopause and rethinking financial behaviour.
Co-editor Sarah Vickerstaff, Professor in Work and Employment at the University of Kent, told a recent webinar to launch the book that previous work had looked at when people retire, what encourages them to retire and so forth. This book, however, looks to understand what is happening now in terms of how older people are marking work work for them, for instance, by working flexibly or temping or through redeployment. It studies a range of transitions made by older workers in countries across Europe, the complex reasons that fuel them, how older workers feel about them and what the potential consequences are.
One major observation is the shift from people seeing retirement as a right to, in the neoliberal state, seeing it as something each individual has to manage – which the book calls responsibilisation.
Chris Phillipson, Professor Sociology and Social Gerontology at the University of Manchester, who wrote one of the chapters in the book, looked at the evolution of our attitudes to older workers since the 1950s. He said that in the 50s and 60s retirement was a male-dominated institution and that still shapes how we view it now to some extent. In the 70s and 80s there was a focus on early release schemes amid a decline in industries such as manufacturing and mining. At that point the Government came to view older workers are largely expendable, he said. By the 1990s, however, there was more of an interest in extended working lives amid state pension changes which coincided with the rise of more precarious jobs.
The rhetoric at the time was very much about choice and freedom, however, “even if the reality is the reinvention of retirement as a risk rather than a social right”, said Phillipson. The rise in the state pension age would serve to increase inequality, especially for women, people from ethnic minority groups and those in poor health, he stated. “At a government level there has been a real failure to face up to the implications of the rising state pension age,” he said, adding that the changes had coincided with disinvestment in occupational health.
Phillipson said there is an urgent need for more qualitative research into older workers and described what he saw as “a near moral panic” in some thinktanks, such as the Centre for Ageing Better and the International Longevity Centre, about retaining older workers fuelled by the idea that work is good for people. “That needs a critical perspective,” he said, adding that he would like to see an urgent focus on job security, enhanced support for older migrants and new forms of income security that don’t rely on paid work as their foundation. Phillipson said that in the cost of living crisis there was a real risk of older workers, particularly those from minority groups, being forced back into insecure jobs.
“The gap between the rhetoric around employing older workers and the reality of their working lives is huge,” he stated. “It is the job of researchers to put these points as passionately as we can. It’s all too easy to see older workers as another resource for productivity.”
Dr David Lain, Senior Lecturer in Employment Studies at Newcastle University Business School and another co-editor of the book, spoke of the neoliberal context of ‘responsibilisation’ and the impact it had had across Europe. The book provides qualitative research on this, comparing countries with different approaches to social welfare. He said there were many similarities, however, in the way a choice narrative was sold about employment when the reality might be less than ideal, including age discrimination and redeployment being used or being viewed as a way of easing people out of the workplace.
There was a discussion of how retirement policy was exacerbating lifetime disadvantages, for instance, for women who had taken career breaks for children and worked in caring professions, but found themselves with musculoskeletal problems as a result and forced into precarious work.
Phillipson said that one result of the raising of the state pension age for all was that all older workers were treated as a homogenous group, when the reality was that they were not. He called on researchers to do more to highlight the outcomes of public policy for particular groups and the potential alternatives.