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Baroness Thatcher's Legacy to Today's Older Workers in the Labour Market

11/04/2013 13:18 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Amidst the legacy left by Lady Thatcher, for good or bad, is one simple fact concerning her Governments' impact on older peoples' struggles to control their work lives and destinies.

The graphs of employment levels from the time she became Prime Minister to leaving office tell the story of a huge and abrupt decline in the numbers of employed older men. This started in 1980 and continued until 1995 (by which time she had passed the baton of government to John Major).

This was not of course deliberate in any understandable sense of the word, but the economic policies pursued by the Government and the decision to eschew propping up ailing industries made it an inevitable outcome.

As others have pointed out, the true impact of her policies on employment was finessed - large numbers of men laid off with the closure of manufacturing companies, were registered not as "unemployed" but as "incapacity benefit claimants".

This growth of "labour market inactivity" is in fact an issue preoccupying the Government today, as they try to reduce the number of people on employment and support allowance benefits, though in the eighties it was tolerated as a political expedient.

1980 onwards also saw a gradual divergence in the employment rates of men in the older and prime age (25 to 49) age ranges. Younger workers of course struggled as unemployment rose and make-work schemes began to be provided for those without jobs.

It would be stretching it to say that this marked the beginning of age discrimination in the labour market, but the facts suggest that marginalisation of older and younger workers intensified from this point onwards.

This fall in older male employment rate has not recovered to the present date.

In 1980, 85 per cent of 50 - 64 years old men were in jobs. By the early 1990s the number had fallen to around 65 per cent. Last month it was 72.7 per cent, still a long way below the 1980 peak.

Employment rates for older women also fell from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s but thereafter behaved differently. Since this point they have been on a rising trajectory. Today 61.5 per cent of women in the 50 to 64 year age range are employed compared with 72.7 per cent of men.

If the Office of National Statistics reported the figures for men and women as "50 to state pension age" (as they used to do) the present day employment rates of older men and women would be very similar - in the 72 per cent region.

Employment rates for younger women meanwhile have risen pretty well consistently throughout the period, denoting the profound changes in patterns of working and family caring over this time.

Fewer women today consider remaining at home until their children reach school age - common in the 1980s. Would Lady Thatcher's traditionalist values have disapproved of this change, or following her own example as a career woman, would she have welcomed it?

Certainly, women moved closer to the economic fulcrum.

The seeds of resisting forced retirement grew and blossomed during Mrs Thatcher's reign, though this can hardly be credited to the Government.

It all began in 1980 when Helen Marshall, a 62 year old senior dietician employed by the Southampton and West Hampshire Area Health Authority, was forcibly retired for no greater reason than that she had passed the age of entitlement to a state pension for women. Had she been a man she would have been allowed to continue working until she was 65.

It was Helen Marshall's appeal against this unfair forced retirement that eventually resulted in a landmark decision of the European Court of Justice, leading to a law compelling employers to equalise male and female retirement ages. The case drew legal authority from the EU Directive concerning equality of treatment between men and women.

Hence, a band waggon started to roll. (Who can say how influential this was in our attitudes to forced retirement more recently? One doesn't need to be a total adherent to chaos theory to accept that small beginnings sometimes influence major developments.)

We do know that the UK Government was a party to the legal proceedings, opposing the EU's Equal Treatment Directive being directly applied against public sector employees.

It is unlikely that Mrs Thatcher set out to close the industries providing skilled jobs or to marginalise older men in the workforce, though this was a clear result of her economic policies and the consequences are still with us. If she has a legacy for today's labour market this is surely part of it.

On the other hand, while we must doubt that she played any conscious part in encouraging older women to challenge forced retirement at 60 while men worked longer, we must acknowledge that this too happened on her watch.

The legacy of an era perhaps, but rather less of the individual whose name marked it.

These important issues in the labour market facing older workers and job seekers today may have been only marginally influenced by her ideology, though as with so many other aspects of what we were and have become, the changes per se' are undeniable.