Although the level of regional unemployment has increased, one group that appears to be overlooked by central government is the over-50s. A growing demographic both in the North and elsewhere in the UK.
Unemployment amongst over-50s
It is true that most people in this cohort are in paid work, with a significant minority of middle-class professionals, having opted for flexible working or a four-day week.
The stark reality is that one million people nationally aged 50 to 64 remain ”economically inactive”. The key question is why. In the last two years since the end of the Covid lockdown, there has been a regional concern about the rise in economic inactivity amongst adults over 50 who have not returned to the workforce.
In the UK 565,000 older people have vanished from the labour force. According to the latest figures inactivity in this group has risen sharply in Newcastle since 2020 following a fall since 2012, in a pattern similar to other core cities like Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.
What is the cause of unemployment?
This rise seems to be driven by two key factors. One is an increase in the number of people reporting long-long-term sickness and disability. And two, a rise in the number of people looking after home or caring for family members.
Yet, according to Age UK, over half a million would work if an employer offered them a job. Many are women in their late 50s who can no longer access their state pension at 60.
Worklessness in this ‘forgotten group’ has been brought on by a number of factors such as redundancy, ill-health, burn-out or ”enforced early retirement”.
It’s hard for the Northern worker to find another job. For others aged over 55, the problem is under-employment which in some ways, is as problematic as unemployment.
Most jobless over-50s are former blue-collar workers living in ‘Red-Wall’ de-industrialised towns like Ashington, Blyth and Stanley.
Thousands are the victims of globalisation and automation which has helped to cause long-term unemployment leaving many consigned to the economic scrapheap.
For some working-class men over 50, the only real developments have been football, walking the dog, afternoon drinking and daytime TV.
Some are disconnected from economic opportunities partly due to poor regional public transport networks. A significant minority do live near major employment, development sites and retail parks, but are sadly overlooked by employers.
Large numbers of older men and women live in neighbourhoods, such as outer-council estates, which have high rates of poverty, unemployment, low skill sets and ill-health.
Many 55-year-olds left school at 16. They’re less likely to be equipped to compete in the digital, fast-paced labour market which favours IT-savvy young adults.
In the forgotten mining communities of the North argues Robin Simmons in his book, ‘The Ghost of Coal’, some older people are locked into a cycle of deprivation that acts as a barrier and prevents certain ‘left-out’ neighbourhoods from fulfilling their potential.
According to the Centre For Ageing Better age-based discrimination is rife. Research reveals that women over 50 are 25 times less likely to be offered a job interview than their peers in their mid-twenties. Younger men were three times more likely to get an interview than their older peers over 50 while among the women the gap was five times.
Yet adult verbal, communication skills and initiative remain unchanged as a person ages. Findings produced by the lobby group, Business In the Community, reveal that older workers are half as likely to take a sick day compared to younger employees. And eight out of 10 employers with older workers reported that their staff are able to adapt to change.
What are local authorities doing?
Although in post-Brexit Britain the national government policy approach to the 50+ age group is slowly evolving, a more pro-active stance is being taken by local authorities and the North of Tyne Combined Authority.
The Shared Prosperity Fund, the ”key locally determined ” funding stream for employment support, identifies those who are ‘economically inactive’ as a priority group.
The North of Tyne Combined Authority has defined the over-50s as a particular priority for jobs and training support with investment going into local VCSE bodies to engage with and support inactive people aged over 50 back into paid work.
In Newcastle, the council has set up an Older Workers Group with local partners including the Elders Council, the Centre for Ageing and public health professionals to explore how to help the 50-64-aged group to stay in and access jobs.
A future North-East Combined Authority must produce a New Deal for Over-50s, based on the New Labour model which achieved some success in 2008 and fully funded adult education to open up opportunities for people over 50.
These are the things that could help the older worker to get back onto the job ladder and make ‘levelling up’ a tangible reality. The UK’s prevention and occupational service at present is poor compared to Sweden (which has a higher employment rate amongst those aged 55-64) and needs meaningful investment.
Older workers need stronger legal protection from the impact of ageism. If we’re serious about creating an age-diverse workplace business, political and civil society leaders need to re-emphasise the value of older workers both in the North and beyond.