When the Office for National Statistics have just published statistics which show employment of the over 65's in the UK has nearly doubled over the last decade, it might seem like a strange time for Policy Exchange to publish a report arguing that we need to do more to help older jobseekers and older workers.
The timing sounds even stranger when considered in the context of the labour market statistics released today that show that the unemployment rate for the over 50's stands at 4.8%, compared to the under 25s rate of nearly 22%. Numerous other commentators have also lamented over the possibility of the recession resulting a lost generation of young people.
In part, this seemingly bad timing underlines the importance of the argument made in the report. The problem is that despite the headline statistics, the situation for those over 50s who find themselves unemployed is pretty dire.
Of those over 50s who were unemployed in the first quarter of 2010, less than 40% were in employment a year later. The equivalent figure for the under 25s is nearly 65%. If this situation for older jobseekers was repeated from today, it would mean that of the nearly 400,000 currently unemployed over 50s, around a quarter of a million would still be out of work next year.
So what is the root of the problem? In part it is an issue of the support available to jobseekers from Jobcentre Plus. As I have previously argued, all too often this is broad-brush and poorly targeted. This is particularly problematic for older jobseekers, who might have significant previous experience but are unsure of how to employ it in today's labour market. There is also a problem that, despite stringent anti-discrimination law in the UK, the report finds significant discrimination against older workers in the jobs market.
There are plenty of ways in which these issues can be tackled. The work of AgeUK and the Prince's Trust PRIME programme are good examples. However, the key blockage is our lack of focus on the problems older workers are facing. It seems that while the government recognises the need for us all to work longer to balance the books, it has little interest in pursuing active policy to ensure that goal becomes a reality.
The focus of Government support on youth unemployment is also problematic for those aged over 25 who find themselves unemployed. With the size of the youth unemployment problem, it is right that the government takes action to ease youth unemployment. However, this should not be at the expense of older jobseekers who, on average, spend longer unemployed and find it harder to re-enter the labour market.
Instead of targeting interventions crudely by age, support should be focussed on those with the greatest barriers to work. A good place to start would be with the government's flagship Youth Contract, which could easily be re-focussed on those with greatest barriers of all ages, without those young people with the greatest barriers losing out.
These are just some of the things that could help tackle the problems that older jobseekers face. However, the government must take bold action to change course. One thing that is clear is that unless action is taken now we risk a 'lost generation' of over 50s, unable to find work and consigned to living out their lives with lower living standards than they had hoped. We also face losing a generation of skills and experience at a time when the economy needs a vital productivity boost. The time for action is now.
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