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'Councils have a crucial role in supporting over-50s into work'

Jemma Mouland
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Adrian is in his late 50s and out of work. 

He’s an experienced electrician, but has spent the past 10 years in and out of short term and zero-hours contracts.

He’s been sent on countless courses by the Jobcentre – the list now fills two pages of his CV - but they were nothing to do with finding stable work in the job he’s trained to do. He just went along so he “didn’t get in trouble”. Other work is available locally, but much of it is warehouse-based and just isn’t suitable; Adrian’s not in the best health and couldn’t manage long periods of standing or heavy lifting. As he draws closer to the state pension age, Adrian says he has pretty much “given up” on finding work.

Adrian’s story is not unusual. Despite a steady increase in the number of people over 50 in work, there are still an estimated one million people who are involuntarily workless in the UK; people who have been pushed out of work through redundancy, ill health or caring responsibilities.

The situation is particularly severe in Greater Manchester, where almost one in three people aged 50-64 are out of work, which is considerably above the national average. Of those who are working, more than a fifth are in low-paid jobs such as warehousing or care work. In other words, almost half of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low-paid, insecure jobs.

Our approach to supporting this age group back into work needs to change. Analysis of the government’s work programme has shown only one in seven people over the age of 50 were supported into a long-term job nationwide: the worst rate of any demographic group regardless of gender, ethnicity, or disability.

Over the last six months, we have been working in five neighbourhoods across Greater Manchester to explore what a new approach could look like.

We commissioned qualitative research with people aged 50 and over who were out of work or in low-paid/insecure work, to build a deeper understanding of their experience of worklessness and insecurity and design possible new solutions with them.

We’ve found a complex range of barriers facing older jobseekers. There are individual issues, especially health and caring responsibilities. These can become overwhelming, so  people begin to see themselves as ‘too old’ to find work, despite being many years from state pension age. James, originally a chef, left work to care for several family members, and now considers himself as retired at the age of just 47.

But there are structural issues at play as well. The quality and nature of work available was one. In Greater Manchester, many job opportunities are in care, retail or warehouse-based work, all of which require a certain level of physical health.

Several residents who we spoke to had worked in industries that had since declined, such as coal mining or the textile industry. Facing a radically different labour market, they struggled to apply their skills and experience. Many felt employers would be reluctant to take on older workers, and that employment and skills support was targeted at younger people.

Subsequently, several were looking at self-employment. However, without adequate support many found themselves in financial difficulties as a result. Joanne, an experienced community artist in her early 60s, recently became self-employed as she could no longer find permanent work due to public sector and grant funding cuts. Joanne recalled her difficulties in accessing advice and support, especially around her finances and her rights as a self-employed worker. She explained how this, combined with the isolation and insecurity of self-employment, had a significant impact on her mental health.

Our research showed local government has a critical role to play in supporting people like Adrian, James and Joanne. All the individuals faced multiple barriers to work. They needed personalised, holistic support, with different agencies and sectors working in an integrated way to help them navigate the complex path back into work and not just with employment and skills, but also health, care, housing, money advice, transport and so on.

The research highlighted the importance of local approaches, tailored to locally available work and the specific challenges and opportunities in each community. Trusted local relationships and services are essential; people we spoke to expressed particularly low confidence and difficulties with leaving their local area for support or jobs. There is a clear need for place-based approaches that support people where they live. We’re working with Greater Manchester to explore how local authorities can convene a range of agencies in a more joined-up way that suits the local context.

Employers also need to do more. We need more flexible opportunities, to allow people to balance work with health conditions and caring responsibilities. We need more open recruitment practices that recognise the experience and skills older people bring to the workplace, even if these aren’t badged with formal qualifications. We’ve also started working with Greater Manchester to explore how they can engage employers to become more age friendly.

Ultimately, our research shows that a whole system approach is needed, engaging private and voluntary sectors as well as the full range of statutory services, and addressing local infrastructure and labour market barriers as well as individual employability. If successful, the potential is huge; in Greater Manchester alone, if the employment rate among 50-64 year olds matched that of 25-49 year olds, over 70,000 more people would be in work.

Jemma Mouland, senior programme manager, Centre for Ageing Better

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