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‘You can’t blame older workers for youth unemployment’

by on March 19, 2015

The Letters page of the Financial Times is the source of today’s blogpost. It features this letter from Ronald Dekker, a labour economist at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, which addresses this earlier FT article by Chris Giles. The latter argues that UK job gains for older workers have come about not through their ‘worth’ but through their exercise of power, likening the ‘genteel grey brigade’ in Britain’s workplaces to ‘the new militant tendency’. He contends that hardship is concentrated amongst the young (which conveniently ignores other factors that might contribute to hardship such as socio-economic status, race and gender).

We’ve seen this argument and its variants many times before. Supposedly different generations (or younger and older workers) are pitted against each other in the labour market, as if chronological age were the only relevant factor.   So we were interested to see what the Dutch labour economist had to say about this.

He argues that blaming ‘grey power’ is nothing more than a ‘mistaken intuition about a generation conflict’. His suggests we should be focusing on why the ratio between the youth unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for those 25 and over is substantially higher in Britain (averaging between 3.5 and 4%) than the EU average (2.5%). This is a higher ratio than in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. He suggests that the reason is the ‘flexibility’ of the British labour market or what he describes as the ‘lack of connection between the British education system and the labour market’. It’d be interesting to know about more about what he means by this.

His view that older workers are not to blame for youth unemployment is, however, in line with the recent independent report, A new vision for older workers: retain, retrain, recruit, from Dr Ros Altmann. Here the Business Champion for Older Workers sets out findings and recommendations for improving the working lives of Britain’s over 50s.  One of its key economic arguments is that more older workers in paid jobs means higher economic growth and better living standards for all.

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