Older workers and electoral politics

April 19, 2010 8:55 pm

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By Chris Ball

The older you get, the more likely you are to vote. Add this to the demographic changes in society and you get a new ‘grey factor’ in election calculations.

Four out of ten of the 632 seats (319) are likely to have ‘grey’ majorities in this election, including 94 of the marginal constituencies which will determine the result.

But the older worker factor is a closely related angle. The numbers of older people in work and seeking work is increasing. Roughly speaking they are 50 to state pension age, though many are working beyond state pension age – if they have the choice.

Some are cut off in their prime, deprived of both income and social networks before they are ready to retire. Making the labour market fairer for older and mid life workers The Age and Employment Network is all about.

Older Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants are numerous enough to influence the outcome in some marginal seats. In Crawley, where Labour’s Laura Moffatt has a majority of 37 votes, there are 170 older JSA claimants.

In Birmingham Edgbaston, where Gisella Stewart (Labour) has a majority of 2,379, there are 380 older JSA claimants. If some of these people switch their votes, it is possible the seat could change hands.

The government has officially outlawed age discrimination in employment but the lawful forced retirement of people once they reach 65 tarnishes such achievements. That default retirement age is a sore point for many older workers. All the parties comment on it in their manifestos, but if one looks at the small print, there is a lot of scope for the issue to be fudged.

Changes to state pension age (SPA) are potentially a huge issue. The present plan is to raise SPA to 66 for men and women in a two year period starting in 2024 and then progressively to 68 by 2044. Last year, George Osborne announced he would bring forward the rise of male SPA to 66 to 2016.

This has not yet been debated during the course of the campaign. Anyone below the age of 59 will be affected by this, but where are the questions to the candidates?

The calculated saving from a one year increase in male SPA is £13 billion a year, so one can see where Mr Osborne is coming from. However, it will be a step too far for many individuals and organisations. Those with health conditions or skills issues, in particular, need special consideration. How easy will it be for them to carry on working for another year or two? And the perverse other side of the coin is that employers are lobbying for vestigial rights to fire older workers whom they consider not up to the job once the default retirement age is removed.

One idea for overcoming this problem is for some form of capability testing to be provided in a new law.

All this is in the policy melting pot right now. It will be an affront to democracy if such issues do not find their way into the open at the election hustings.

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