By Sarah Vickerstaff and David Lain

We have heard much in the last few years about the growing experience of precarity in the British labour market, with The TUC estimating that 3.2 million workers are in insecure employment.  The rise of 24/7 services and the gig economy has increased the number of unprotected jobs in which wages are low, working hours and job demands are unpredictable and people enjoy few legal protections against discrimination, exploitation and unfair dismissal. This is of course against a wider backdrop of austerity.

The focus on the changing nature of jobs, predicted to increase by the Taylor Review  and the TUC, is clearly important. However, by focusing attention solely on this form of precariousness we are arguably neglecting what has been happening to regular workers, some of whom feel real uncertainty and concern about the future. Older workers, who face a dramatically changing employment landscape, are a key group in this regard. On the one hand, age discrimination is now a protected characteristic and there is no mandatory retirement age. On the other hand, state pension ages have risen (especially quickly for women) alongside wider financial pressures to work longer and delay retirement. This is typically presented as a major extension of choice for older workers, who are no longer forced to retire simply because they reach a certain age. However, our recent research suggests that for a significant number the picture is less rosy and many older workers are likely to feel that their situation is precarious.

In an article we recently published in Ageing & Society we attempt to make sense of this precariousness by developing a new theoretical model for understanding precarity as a lived experience (First View: doi:10.1017/S0144686X18001253). The model was developed from interviews we conducted with older workers aged 50-plus in a range of organisations for a large qualitative study. We found that many felt very insecure and worried about their work and future, despite having jobs with seemingly secure employment contracts. The research literature has typically presented precarity solely as a labour outcome (i.e. an employment condition). For our respondents ‘ontological’ precarity was experienced as a form of anxiety, which was influenced by the interaction between ‘precarious jobs’, ‘precarious welfare states’ and ‘precarious households’.

To  illustrate what this means in practise, the article draws on interviews with workers in two organisations: Local Government and Hospitality. In both organisations older workers experienced a sense of ontological precarity because they worried about the long-term sustainability of their employment (‘precarious jobs’), but they saw limited alternative sources of retirement income as being available (a facet of a ‘precarious welfare state’). Hospitality workers worried about being able to continue doing physically demanding jobs in the face of worsening levels of health. In Local Government cut-backs meant fears about job-loss. In both organisations work intensification increased job-demand pressures on older workers, who felt their work-levels were physically and mentally unsustainable as they got older. These workers nevertheless often saw little choice but to continue working for financial reasons, causing intense anxiety in some cases.

Household circumstances either reinforced interviewees’ sense of precarity, or acted as a buffer against it. This was particularly important for women, as they typically accrued smaller financial resources in their own right and relied on the presence of partner with a good pension in order to leave employment at a time they felt was appropriate. Because of changing household structures, significant numbers of older people now arguably live in ‘precarious households’, and can no-longer rely on the presence of a long-term partner for financial support. As one blue-collar female worker in Hospitality said:

“On his leaving, I got left with nothing, so I’ve had to work and start paying into a pension here. So financially I’m not in a position to retire. Even when I get to 67, I still don’t know how financially I would be able to manage. So I would say I would work as long as I could possibly work.”

Those affected by precarious jobs, a precarious welfare state and a precarious household fared the worst. However, partnership was nevertheless no guarantee that people would have choice over retirement timing. Married people still felt compelled to continue working if they lived in households with modest incomes, even when poor health made this very difficult. As one married hospitality worker remarked “I know I’ve got to carry on working till the day I drop, basically, and there’s nothing I can do about it. In these circumstances, workers were realistic that they had limited alternative opportunities to get less physically or psychologically demanding jobs.

Our concluding discussion builds on this more advanced theoretical understanding of older worker precarity to call for a rethinking of state and employer support for decisions around later-life working and retirement. This means recognising that, for some people, continuing to work until age 70 is unrealistic, and that state-provided financial support mechanisms are required to enable people to exercise greater control over the timing of the end of their working lives. This is important for their individual well-being but arguably also for the well-being of us all in older age.

For more details on the research see: Lain D, Airey L, Loretto W, Vickerstaff S (2018). Understanding older worker precarity: the intersecting domains of jobs, households and the welfare state. Ageing & Society 1–23.