Trapped in an extending working life

By Mariska van der Horst, Sarah Vickerstaff and David Lain

The people who most need to retire are probably those currently more likely to have to continue working. Policy changes are trapping some people in employment.

A key debate in the 2019 UK general election was the planned increase in the State Pension Age. State pension age has been rising rapidly for women and is set to reach 66 in 2020 for men and women, after which it will rise even further. The Women against State Pension age Increases (WASPI) campaign has argued that this increase was unexpected and too rapid. People who find themselves out of work before state pension age face the prospect of benefits worth half that of the state pension. In addition, benefits for people unable to work through disability have become harder to access.

The Labour manifesto attempted to address some of these concerns by proposing that increases stopped at 66, and women affected by increased state pension ages would receive some form of financial compensation. In addition, Labour committed to reviewing state pension ages for people in physically demanding and stressful work.

With the election of the Conservative government, these policy proposals will obviously not be implemented, but the problems they attempt to address will not go away. We have done research examining the situation of older workers in a number of UK organisations. We found that people in physically demanding and stressful work were struggling to continue working, and often felt they could not afford to stop. As one female low-paid hospitality worker aged 57 in poor health said:

“I know I have to continue working till the day I drop and there is nothing I can do about it.”

A common HR solution proposed to support older workers is to provide flexible employment, for example a reduction in working hours. However, this is not a feasible option for everyone, as the female hospitality worker explained:

“I couldn’t reduce my hours. I couldn’t live on 20 hours a week, let’s say.”

An alternative would be to move some of these workers into less strenuous jobs, but this is often difficult for organisations. The scope for redeploying a blue collar worker into a more desk-based occupation is typically limited. As a local government HR manager said:

“That would mean completely reskilling … someone who’s always worked, you know, on the highways doing maintenance type work is suddenly in their late 50s having to reskill to do an admin type role”

It also becomes a challenge to manage older workers with health problems in this context. We found that in some cases there were older workers who were hiding their health problems from their line manager, fearing that they would be managed out of their jobs.

For the workers themselves, one option may be to find less physically arduous employment in another organisation. However, many of the people we interviewed were very pessimistic about the possibility of finding such a job. As one female hospitality worker aged 61 said:

“As you get older, it is a lot harder to find a job. So I think, whereas if I were in my twenties and I was unhappy, I would go and find something else you know… At my age, not so easy”

Government solutions for promoting extending working lives centre around giving people more choice over retirement timing, most notably by abolishing the default retirement age of 65. Recent policy changes and the general injunction to delay retirement assume that everyone has the same capacity to work longer, using a one-size-fits-all implementation. Moreover, increasingly public discourse takes an almost moral tone that as we as are living longer we have a duty to continue working. It also has been suggested that work is good for you, improving an individual’s health, although the evidence for this is less than conclusive. Our research clearly identifies that for some people continued employment may in fact be detrimental to their health. Wider research suggests that, female state pension age rises have likewise negatively affected the physical and mental health of older women in routine-manual occupations.

With Labour’s defeat the likelihood is that state pension ages will continue to rise for everyone. Employers can think more creatively about reasonable adjustment to work, provision of flexible work, and competence development initiatives. For example, we found employers underestimated the extent to which they could reorganise working time for staff. At the same time, these changes were most likely to be effective for people in white collar roles. Current one-size-fits-all government policy initiatives are increasingly trapping often the most disadvantaged in paid employment that could be damaging their health. To talk about genuine choice there need to be decent alternatives. Government needs to address the reality that extending working lives are not feasible or desirable for all.