Labour must stand up for the skills and rights of older workers and see off the threat of UKIP, a councillor writes

Although the level of unemployment was largely flat, when new figures were announced today, one group that seems to have been ignored from the debate is the over-50s – a growing demographic in Britain. True, most men and women in this cohort are in paid jobs, with a significant minority of middle-class professionals, having opted for a four-day week. Some, mostly middle-class professionals, have taken early retirement in the mid-50s with good work based pensions and mortgages paid off. Yet this option is vanishing as the retirement age rises to 66.

The stark reality is that over a million people aged 50 to 64 remain economically inactive and want a job. It’s estimated by Age UK that 1.5m have been in this position in the last eight years: more than a million would work if some-one offered them a job. Many are women in their sixties who can no longer access their state pension at 60-years-old.

In Newcastle, where I live, about 1,000 people aged 50 to 64 claim jobseekers’ allowance. But this is an under-estimate. Some don’t claim because of their partners’ earnings. Others are put off by the bureaucratic claiming procedures. Others receive disability living allowance or personal independence payments. Worklessness in this “forgotten group” has been brought on by a range of factors such as redundancy, ill-health, burn-out or “enforced retirement” on modest occupational pensions. As the TUC notes, it is virtually impossible for the older worker to find another job.

Age-based unemployment and early retirement is a class and gender-related phenomena. Most in this category are former working- class, blue collar workers living in the most disadvantaged towns across the north of England and Wales. They are the victims of globalisation and automation which has caused long-term unemployment leaving them consigned to the economic scrap heap. For some working-class men over 55, the only real developments have been walking the dog, football, day time telly.

Work done by Nick Drydakis shows that women over 50-years-old are 25 times less likely to be offered a job interview than their peers in their twenties. Overall younger candidates were four times more likely to be given an interview. Younger men were three times more likely to get shortlisted than their older peers. The chief factor is age-based discrimination. Although some less enlightened employers are using subtle methods by just hiring the under-45s, a small, but growing number of forward looking companies have policies that fly in the face of ageism, such as B&Q. It makes good business sense to recruit older workers as consumers get older. Older workers are reliable, productive and less likely to take time off.

Although the Conservative government has established an older workers’ czar to encourage bosses to recruit, retain and retrain older workers, stubborn attitudes still persist among some employers. The former Labour administration’s New Deal 50+ has been abandoned while re-training opportunities are few.

A large proportion of white working-class older people live in urban deindustrialised communities with high rates of poverty, low skill sets, ill-health and few qualifications. Some 55-year-olds haven’t been to school since the age of 16. They’re less likely to be equipped to compete in a digital fast-paced labour market which favours IT-savvy youngsters. Some are locked into a “cycle of  deprivation” that acts as a barrier and prevents certain neighbourhoods from fulfilling their potential.

Politically these changes have a significant implication for Labour. A large number of households in the north and midlands where some people are workless are located in the outer-council estates, riverside communities, coastal towns and are “Old Labour” voters. But in the last half decade a significant minority have deserted the “People’s Party” for the populist radical right UKIP. Last year 70 per cent backed Brexit in their droves from Clacton to Corby. To Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, authors of Revolt on the Right, a resurgent UKIP reflects this group’s sense of grievance, anger and alienation. They’ve been excluded, marginalised and forgotten by the political elite.

Labour in local government must address the age, class and gender inequalities in pre-retirement. Nationally, the party must develop policies to improve the life-chances of the post-50 generation. We should produce a charter for the over-50s needs. A fully funded Older Persons Enterprise Allowance Programme could be developed to promote self-employment. Under the Conservatives, opportunities for older adults to get back to study or update their skills have been cut to the bone. Yet these are the things that could help the “left-behinds” to get back onto the jobs ladder.

The older long-term unemployed still face entrenched ageism when putting in for jobs. Yet most have had over 30 years of valuable work experience and transferable skills (without knowing it). Because of employer prejudice the vast majority don’t stand a chance. It is time to toughen up the equality act. Redress needs reforming. Few on low incomes have the cash to fund discrimination cases at employment tribunals. This must change under Labour.

But we need a shift in cultural attitudes coupled with a New Deal for the Older Worker if  we’re serious about creating an age diverse workplace in the 21st century.

Stephen Lambert is a Labour Newcastle city councillor and former parliamentary candidate.

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