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What does the UK Government cabinet re-shuffle tell us about age stereotypes?

David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle was reported live on the press and even the PM himself tweeted key events!  The BBC here provide a summary of the key changes which also includes some interesting filters so that you can see just the women (5), the Oxbridge educated (14)  or those under 50 (13).  So the diversity issue here appears linked to these three ‘characteristics’, lets call them (some other glaring problems with diversity in the cabinet will be very obvious to those scanning the images on the BBC website).

During the live coverage and in subsequent reports much was made of the emphasis given to women and youth in this reshuffle, with concern that this was a public image exercise which might actually raise issues for the particular young and/or female MPs ‘promoted’.  The Guardian however go one step further in challenging the assumptions of age stereotypes that are dominant in the reporting, with Anne Karpf saying “welcome to middle-ageism” and highlighting that “Ageism has been described as prejudice against your future self“.  Somewhat ironic given this is the week the government appointed an Older Workers champion.

Age stereotypes do not however just impact our perceptions of ‘older workers’, it is our understandings of age that are problematic here and the generalisations we make once we assign an individual to a particular age or chronological category such as older, younger or, say, generational category.  But hey, its Friday so I won’t start another rant against the concept of generations before the weekend!

Age at Work are off on their summer hols next week – back again soon!


Age reported as key dimension of who was hit worst in recession

Much reported over the last two days in the UK press is the recent report by the Insitute of Fiscal Studies.  Their own website sets out the headline news: “The recession and its aftermath have been much harder on the young than the old. The employment rate of those in their 20s has fallen, while employment among older individuals has not; and real pay among young workers has fallen much faster than among older workers. As a result, young adults’ real incomes have fallen much more than any other age-group”

For regular readers it will probably go without saying that the vagueness of the categorisations of younger and older here are somewhat frustrating – particularly when it is these overall summaries that form the headlines in the widespread news coverage.  For example the Telegraph went with the headline “Pensioners have never had it better” while the Guardian led with “Young adults ‘bearing brunt of recession’ although they subheader was the slightly confused ‘Institute for Fiscal Studies finds people in age group have found jobs hard to find’.  Which age group is that again?

The IFS are clear to point out that their report uses “The main measure of income used in our analysis is net household income, which is ‘equivalised’ to take account of differences in household size and composition. ”  However this is not a straight-forward measure and does present some problems and it also interesting that ‘Inequality across age spectrum’ is the only dimension analysed here – while of course there may be many other issues to take into account.  For example the report states recent  “Recent years have seen the incomes of those in work fall relative to the rest of the population, as earnings have risen much less quickly than prices. This has reversed some of the increased inequality between rich and poor, but contributed to further increases in the incomes of the old relative to those of the young”.  To present the ‘old’ as ‘winners’ here in the respect to the young; in a similar comparison to that between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ seems quite inflammatory.  Surely it seems likely that the rich old and the rich young are still the winners against the poor of whatever age?  Who are the young in any case?  Further reading suggests that the young here are a group categorised as 22-30 – very different categorisation of, for example, youth unemployment which the ONS classify as 16-24.

Later in the report they highlight that “Parents’ incomes, which have been relatively stable, may have provided important insurance against falling personal incomes for some young adults since the start of the Great Recession”.  So is this really a case of different age groups working together rather than in competition?  Closer reading suggests that the key issues here is housing costs – so, I suggest that, IF you own you home outright (whatever age) your relative income is significantly higher than IF (whatever age) you do not, and it seems particularly if you are renting.  This is my own take on the data presented in p45 and 46 of the report – again from a relatively superficial first read.

I have only so far skimmed the 133 page report – which, despite my comments above, obviously a really useful and potentially informative analysis of a variety of income related statistics.  However we fear that summaries and headlines which pitch ‘old’ vs ‘young’ in a stereotyped battle are sadly hiding more issues about inequality than they reveal.



Twitter sued for age discrimination

Yes I know there is a lot of age related news in the UK this week but this really caught my eye – and yes I was intrigued to know what would happen to the tweet linked to this post!

This story is covered widely in the US press – here in SF weekly (which includes a link to the lawsuit) -and in the UK via the Daily Mail (though this largely relies, as do we, on the US sources but is open to comments providing an interesting perspective of how the story has been received).  Stories of age discrimination in various high tech firms are not new, but we think this is a first for twitter, who strongly deny any wrongdoing and say they will “vigorously defend ourselves against it”, according to most reports.

The premise of the case is a familiar one in age discrimination terms.  Here a 57 year old lost his job, despite apparently good performance and has been reportedly replaced with younger workers.  The reports also suggest the worker received at least one discriminatory comment related to his age.  This is set against broader reporting of concerns regarding ageism in Silicon Valley type industries, including here related to a report on male plastic surgery  It is worth noting that in the US age discrimination legislation relates only to the protection of older workers; specifically it protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination” according to the official department of labour website and is thus a different legal context from here in the UK

As with our other posts on age discrimination cases, this obviously has a long way to run and we will watch with interest.

We’ll be back with a more UK focused post tomorrow!


Terra Firma, Terra Nova, Terra Incognita”, 11th International Conference on Organizational Discourse

DalekIts been a busy time at conferences over the last month for Age at Work.  First we had the Gender Work and Organization Conference at Keele in June, in which we presented our paper on Weary Women in the Gender and Later Working Life Stream.  Then last week we attended the 11th International Conference on Organizational Discourse in Cardiff.  This is a conference we (Katrina and Rebecca) have frequented many times over the years, though always at the Vrije University, Amsterdam.

So how would the conference transfer to Wales?  Well there was still a boat trip but with added Dalek (see above) at the conference drinks reception at the Dr Who Experience in Cardiff Bay.  Many interesting presentations across the three days which we approached through a divide and conquer strategy to ensure we got to attend as many as possible.  There were a wide range of topics covered though definitely a strong empirical focus on identity and identity work.  Both keynote speakers – Dennis Mumby  and Cynthia Hardy were (as expected) excellent!  Dennis opened the conference and explored consumerism and branding via discourse, promoting an inclusive and extensive approach to discourse studies, a theme that we were delighted reflects our own approach here at Age at work.  Cynthia managed to incorporate Dr Who’s Tardis and achieved a round of applause for her slide transitions (that’s a first I think)!  Cynthia’s research on age will be well know to many readers of our blog and here she explored notions of temporal work.  Again, very useful for us in framing our academic papers on age at work!

Throughout the three days there were plenty of interesting papers from big names and newcomers alike, with a great social atmosphere and much opportunity for informal discussion and catching up with old friends (and future colleagues – more on that to follow).  The closing presentations by the founders of the conference provided food for thought as we left, though mainly we enjoyed Cynthia’s irreverent photo analysis of their ageing!

Looking forward to Amsterdam in 2016 (which we imagine will be scheduled for after the Euro 2016 football championships given the organisers passion for the game!)

Our presentation at the 2014 conference will appear here shortly.


Is 50+ definition for older workers a coincidence? Does it help or hinder?

Today the UK appointed a new Older Workers Champion, Ros Altmann, in a move strongly seen as a positive one in the fight against (old) ageism in the workplace. (See for example this coverage in the daily mail).  In the enthusiasm the definition of 50+ as the boundary for ‘Older Workers’ seems to have been overlooked.  But we would suggest this needs more scrutiny.

Not least we would ask if it is pure coincidence that Saga markets to 50+ when the new UK government’s ‘Business Champion for Older Workers’ uses the same 50+ definition and is a former Saga boss?

Now regular readers will know that we often highlight the issues of arbitrary boundaries for older and younger definitions (and whatever is in between).  Certainly recent discussions with academic colleagues would suggest that to treat the “50+” group as a meaningful category called ‘older workers’ is to hide as much variation as it might reveal.  Certainly the official status of the categorisation which has been quite variably constructed in the past, might pose potential problems and risk invitation to stereotype.  Somewhat ironically I find the Telegraph quoting the new champion as saying “Too many people write themselves off when they are still young” – the irony being that they are now not “young” but officially designated as  “older workers” once they reach the age of 50.  Sadly we at ageatwork think this very act of defining older workers as 50+ might actually increase ageist attitudes to those in this group.

Watching coverage on BBC breakfast and reading the news the main focus seems to be on not retiring and/or returning to work – and the agenda here is not all together clear.  However it is early days and Ageatwork will watch the developing debates with interest.

Report on our visit to the Organizational Discourse Conference will follow tomorrow!

We’re off to the Organizational Discourse conference to present ‘The Missing Million’

We are excited to be off tomorrow to the 11th International Conference on Organizational Discourse which is being hosted at Cardiff Business School. We’ll take a break from blogging for the rest of the week, back next Monday 14th July.

We’ll be presenting a paper at the conference on Friday. Here’s the abstract:

The Missing Million: the Discursive construction of age-related unemployment in the UK

On 16th November 2011 the UK Office of National Statistics quarterly Labour Market Statistics Bulletin (Office for National Statistics, 2011) reported that “unemployed people aged from 16 to 24 increased by 67,000 over the quarter to reach 1.02 million … The unemployment level and rate for people aged from 16 to 24 are the highest since directly comparable records began in 1992” (p. 2).

This announcement broke new ground for unemployment. The symbolic passing of the one million barrier for youth unemployment had been widely expected and its confirmation prompted significant debate regarding age-related unemployment. It is noteworthy that these debates did not only relate to young people. Issues relating to older age groups were already attracting significant attention, due to the effective end of mandatory retirement and announcement of a rise in pension age to 67 in the UK. Thus relative concerns and issues of unemployment for both younger and older people became the subject of much debate and, we suggest, discursive competition.
Our research examines the discursive construction of unemployment, with a particular focus on the discursive positioning of age (and categories thereof) within these debates. Drawing on a broader data set collected in respect to our research on age at work, we analyse media coverage of the ONS unemployment statistics during the two week period around this announcement. Our data comes from Web 2.0 and includes blog posts, news items, press releases, website updates and tweets. The data analysed comprises over 50 separate texts and in the region of 500 tweets; tweets are short-form micro-blogging messages (maximum 140 characters) while other texts ranged from 1 to 60 pages in length.

Discursive analysis of unemployment has highlighted overarching metaphors of fight and struggle from a governmental perspective (Straehle et al., 1999) while others have examined the moral discourses within the (virtuous) construction of paid work and the need to “rescue“ (Cole, 2008: 29) individuals through the provision of jobs (Whiteside, 2013). Embedded within these broader debates regarding unemployment and the unemployed is the stratification or identification of different categories for whom both the immediate and longer-term experiences of being out of work are said to differ. Historically such debates were highly gendered but age-dimensions have also been a long standing feature (Fevre, 2011). During the period from 1970-90 there was a focus on older men who were retired early as part of a process of managing the workforce (Walker, 2005). However, Fevre notes a transition within discussions of unemployment during the 1990’s to young people “who could not find a way in” to work (Fevre, 2011: 2). This transition has in part been enabled by the categorisation of youth unemployment within statistical analysis and the labelling of groups such as NEETs (those classified as not in employment education or training) (Furlong, 2006; MacDonald, 2011).

In this paper, our empirical attention is further given to those involved in (re)producing debates and discussions in respect to age-specific unemployment issues. Given that unemployment is widely seen as an issue embedded within the broader political system (Straehle et al., 1999; Muntigl et al., 2000) and with the subject positioning of the out of work individual as a victim as needing rescue (Cole, 2008), the unemployed are often positioned as without voice. Rather, the unemployed are represented by a variety of organizations (including charities, professional bodies, trade unions and campaign groups) who act on their behalf. In some instances, such organizations voice issues relating to the unemployed as a generic group, however increasingly they work to champion and campaign for the specific needs of various categories (Rao et al., 2000) as they compete for “discursive control” (Dostal, 2004: 443). Therefore, in addition to our interest in the discursive construction of age-related unemployment issues, we also examine the activity of these organizations in the various Web 2.0 media as these discourses are (re)produced.

As highlighted above, following the tradition of research into social movements more broadly, we take a case study approach (Rao et al., 2000) in examining the debates surrounding the November 2011 Labour Market Statistics Bulletin (Office for National Statistics, 2011). We specifically analyse how unemployment is constructed for younger and older people and explore the different voices involved in these debates. Our inclusive approach of examining discourses across the age range offers an alternative to those highlighting the issues of youth unemployment (Furlong, 2006) or concern with older workers (Ranzijn et al., 2006). This allows our analysis to unpack the differential positioning of unemployment issues and in particular to review the discursive competition for attention (Cole, 2008) (and ultimately resources) within our data.

We utilise an empirically innovative e-research approach (Authors, 2012) to untangle these issues via Web 2.0 media (O’Reilly, 2005). The few discourse studies that have utilized the Web beyond data collection have focused on particular forms, for example, examining corporate websites as discursive artefacts (Merilainen et al., 2009). Certain Web 2.0 media recreate print formats (such as newspapers), whilst new forms (such as blogging and tweeting) have emerged. These new media have been specifically implicated in the process of campaigning and therefore provide a particularly relevant research context for this empirical study (Garrett, 2006).

Our initial analysis in respect to the discursive construction of age-specific unemployment highlights three key issues at stake which form the basis of competition emerging between various organisations campaigning on behalf of different age-groups. Firstly, the discursive construction of entitlement to work which encompasses the right of individuals to choose particular forms of employment and or receive support (e.g. training) to facilitate access to work. Secondly, the discursive construction of the challenge of looking for work. This includes the positioning of the unemployed individual (of a particular age) as either able or unable to rise to this challenge (with or without support). Finally, the discursive construction of the individual and broader societal consequences of unemployment for a particular age group. Using our analysis of these three issues as the new battle ground for age-related unemployment, our full paper examines how different organizations engaged with and in this debate via Web 2.0 as the ‘missing million’ were unveiled.

To date, examinations of age and unemployment have been largely segregated with attention to either young or older age groups as the empirical focus. Our approach allows us to examine how specific age-related categories are constructed and deployed as an organising principle in ways that legitimate age-related differences with regard to unemployment. Such insights are essential to further our understandings of age-related issues in contemporary organising.

Which age cohort has been the best paid? The @ONS investigates

The ONS released figures last week that compared the inflation-adjusted earnings of different age cohorts over time. A copy of the release can be downloaded from this ONS webpage.  They seem to have compared three age cohorts: those who were 21 in 1995, those who were 21 in 1985 and those aged 21 in 1975. These were examined over the period to 2013 (by when they were aged 39, 49 and 59 respectively).

What did they find?

  • People who started their career in the 1990s were paid on average 40% more in real terms in their first 18 years than those who started in the 1970s;
  • People who started work in 1985 earned 18% more than their 1975 counterparts;
  • Since 2009 all three cohorts have seen a fall in their real earnings.

And how has this been reported in the UK media?

Well, here’s a link to the Daily Mail which covered the release and included lots of colourful graphics to help convey the statistics. As ever, the reader comments are worth a look, with many debating the relative worth of the pound, the rise in spending on consumables and, for some, the trend towards a low pay economy.

‘Generation DIY’: The trend for self-employment – at all ages?

Just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be another new generational term, along comes ‘Generation DIY’ as coined in this opinion piece in The Independent earlier this week.

Generation DIY is apparently the perfect solution to today’s job market, namely self-employment. Although the article focuses on the increasing number of young people who are turning to self-employment, it’s a wider trend according to the ONS. UK figures released in 2012 showed that the number of self-employed workers rose 367,000 between 2008 (the start of the economic downturn), and 2012. And 84% of the increase since 2008 was for those aged 50 and above.

Is it the answer to a continuing shortage of jobs? The Independent piece positions self employment as a positive and empowering choice: ‘instead of moaning, descending into ugly fatalism, twentysomethings are – positively – doing something about it‘. And it may well offer flexibility for some. But financially it may not be a good idea, according to this article in The Guardian which refers to research by the Resolution Foundation suggesting that the typical self-employed person is now being paid 40% less than the average employee.

Debate on Older Women in the Labour Market

On Monday I attended a debate organised by TAEN (The Age and Employment Network) at the House of Lords on older women in the labour market. I live tweeted from the debate on our @AgeatWork twitter account so I won’t set out here everything that was discussed but will focus on some of the key points and my observations.

The speakers were Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Spokesperson on Women, Families and Equality Issues, and Scarlet Harris, Women’s Equality Officer, TUC. It was chaired by Chris Ball, Chief Executive of TAEN.

Scarlet Harris outlined findings from data gathered from older women through surveys and case studies. Key issues raised included low pay (women over 50 earn nearly a fifth less than men in same age group and the majority work part-time), the precarious nature of work (eg zero hours contracts, redundancy), juggling work and caring responsibilities, age/gender discrimination (with particular evidence from teachers of being ‘managed out’ of the workforce). Her conclusion – that ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’. She also handed out copies of a TUC report ‘Women over 50 in the Workplace’ which can be downloaded from the TUC website from here.

Sharon Hodgson spoke about the Labour Party Commission on Older Women which produced an interim report last September (available here).  This includes a helpful summary of the initial 17 recommendations in this area.  One of the key issues she raised in the debate included the view that the Government’s Work Programme (which is supposed to provide personalised support for job seekers) is not geared to deal with the needs of older women (there was extended discussion and quite a bit of support for the idea of mid life career reviews – indeed, for better career advice throughout the lifespan, starting at school).

Ms Hodgson also mentioned the Government announcement of the appointment of a new ‘Older Workers’ Employment Champion’ (apparently the post hasn’t been advertised yet). According to the Government website, this will be ‘a respected and independent-minded figure who will advocate the case for older workers within the business community and wider society’. This is part of the Government’s Fuller Working Lives initiative.

My overall observation is that whilst it’s valuable to explore the particular issues raised by different groups who face problems in relation to work (finding it, pay levels, job security and flexibility etc), there is always a danger that the focus (including for solutions) will remain at the level of the individual. This is not to say that, for example, better career advice isn’t needed but rather to see this as something that should be available to all (men and women) and at all ages. Similarly, that some of the issues are not really to do with individuals at all (the fact that there are not enough jobs, for example, or industry-wide ageist attitudes). In his chairing of the debate, Chris Ball of TAEN raised some of these wider issues including initiatives by employers in other countries (eg BMW in Germany) who see it as their responsibility to adapt to an older workforce.

Our thanks to all who were involved in the event for an interesting debate.

Gender and Later Working Life

Last week, we attended the 8th Biennial International Conference on Gender, Work & Organization hosted at the University of Keele.

We presented our paper in the ‘Gender and Later Working Life’ stream, convened by Dr Linda Colley, Professor Wendy Loretto and Dr Aine Ni Leime. This proved to be a collection of excellent and wide-ranging papers covering topics as diverse as a biocultural approach to women, work and the menopause (Kat Riach and colleagues), representations of staffing companies that specialise in older workers in Sweden (Elisabet Cedersund and colleagues), the (not so rosy) pension consequences of working part-time in Norway (Anne Inga Hilsen and colleagues) and issues of age and gender in Occupational Safety & Health (Joanne Crawford).

It also introduced us to some fascinating new methods of analysing data, in particular the use of optimal matching analysis to study cross-national patterns in how employment pathways are gendered in later life (Laurie Corna and colleagues). This is a method primarily used in genetic sequencing but has been adapted for use in the social sciences to examine dissimilarities in data that represent a time-ordered sequence of selected socio-economic states. In this project it’s used to examine and model gender differences in the detailed labour market involvement and family histories of men and women in Germany, Italy and Sweden. The project findings challenge assumptions about retirement as a ‘one time labour market exit’ which can hide much of the complexity of work and other responsibilities in later life.

Our thanks to the stream conveners and to all who took part in a fascinating and highly enjoyable event. It was great to meet new colleagues working in this area and to catch up with old friends.

We’ve put a copy of the presentation of our paper on the Publications and Past Conference Presentations page of this blog.


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