The fallout from Covid-19 has inevitably increased calls for older workers like myself (I’m 68) to make way for young ones. A third of UK firms announced this week that they plan to cut jobs in the autumn and unemployment figures are up significantly.
Pushing us out of the labour market feels like a simple solution. In a recent edition of his podcast Ways to Change the World, Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra: “If you could fix it, if you could change the world, what would you do?” Mishra replied: “I very strongly believe that true change will begin to happen when people from an older generation start to take voluntary retirement.”
He said that from a person’s late 50s, “one should look for the door marked exit and retire and actually create space for younger people.” He added: “It’s best to retreat. It’s best to retire and make space for the more talented and smarter people.”
Let’s leave aside for a moment the idea that younger people are smarter than older ones. People campaigned for decades to end enforced retirement ages in the workplace. But the idea that we should shove off out of the office is increasingly seen as acceptable. There’s one big problem with it: the pension age. From October, both men and women won’t get their pensions until they are 66. So if they just got out of the way, they would have to do so in poverty. For women the pension age has gone up by six years – affecting 4 million women born after March 1950.
In this country, pre-Covid, there were 2.8 million people in their 60s working and in most cases that was because they needed the money. The UK pension is low compared with many countries so many people need to carry on working. Age UK estimates that 15% of pensioners aged 65-69 live in poverty. Those who relied on investments to top up their pensions – and not all such people are wealthy – are also likely to have seen their nest eggs shrink.
There are two worrying trends in the unemployment figures – the big rise in unemployment among young people and the notable fact that 218,000 people aged 65 and over have dropped out of the labour market. They don’t count as “unemployed” but are recorded as “economically inactive”. We know that when older people lose their jobs, it is very hard for them to get new work. This trend for older workers to lose their jobs is happening across the western world. In the US in February, there were 37.8 million workers aged over 55. By May, there were 32.7 million.
There is also no evidence that if an older person leaves the job market, it provides a job for a younger person. If I left my job as editor-at-large at Channel 4, it is doubtful that my employer would give it to a teenager. The argument that we take other people’s jobs is similar to that used in the past to keep women out of the job market. It was thought they would steal men’s jobs. In fact, when women entered the labour market, economies grew.
In 1977, the government introduced a job release scheme to incentivise older people to retire a year early to free up jobs for registered unemployed younger people. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found it didn’t increase youth employment. In fact, an IFS report stated: “When looking at the entire 1968-2005 period, labour force participation of the old is positively associated with employment of the young.”
The other problem with the idea that we oldies should all stop working is how many of us there are now. In 1960, people aged 65 and over represented 4.9% of the global population. By 2050, it’s estimated we will be 17% of the global population. If we don’t work, we will all be living off younger people and the economy will be smaller. Those 218,000 people aged 65 and over who have become “economically inactive” in the UK will have less to spend.
But I shouldn’t have to justify working. Everyone has the right to work. Plus having older people in organisations has major benefits, because we know a lot. Years ago I commissioned a lovely programme called Working with Dinosaurs in which we sent an old woman, who also happened to be called Dorothy, to train as what was then known as an “air hostess”. She was brilliant. After training, she took a role as cabin crew on a plane from Spain to England. She was a big hit; she brooked no nonsense from noisy passengers and was lovely and reassuring to children. At the end of her first flight, the whole plane cheered her. What would you rather have, gorgeous young cabin crew or an old woman who knows how to deal with drunks on a plane?
In any case, let’s look at this column as a tiny example of how it makes good economic sense to keep employing older people. Only an angry old woman would have written an article like this, so I didn’t take an opportunity from one of those brilliant teenagers. I will pay a substantial percentage of the fee for it in tax. The rest I will squander on a meal out for the family, thus helping to provide work for younger people. A case in point of how keeping older people in work isn’t a zero-sum game: in fact, it’s a win-win.
• Dorothy Byrne is editor-at-large at Channel 4