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Debate on Older Women in the Labour Market

by on July 3, 2014

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.

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