The truth about the over-50s

Is there really, as reports suggest, a forgotten army of over-50s, crying out for work? The reality is rather more complicated

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The Independent Online

The headline screamed out from the front page of this newspaper and The Independent: “The forgotten army of over-50s women, whose unemployment has jumped by 45% since 2010”. It was a statistic to startle even the most casual of reader, let alone one like myself who has only this past week joined a start-up aimed at building the world’s largest 50+ community.

Of course, as ever with statistics, they can be fought over, reinterpreted and presented again with a different message. The DWP claims that more women aged 50-64 than ever are actually in work, and that the percentage out of work has actually fallen by five per cent since 2010.

Reality, it appears, is more complex than the statistics would suggest, but there are some self-evident truths. The first is that the sustained programme of cuts that have affected the public sector have an inordinate knock-on effect on the female employment rate because so many more women proportionately are employed in the public sector.

The second is that such growth as there has been in the private sector has benefited men more than women. The third, which is a new phenomenon particular to our age, is that there is a marked return – or attempted return - to the workforce of older women as the female retirement age rises from 60 to 65 in line with men.

Less well explored is the knock-on effect of wage stagnation. As wages have failed to keep pace with inflation over the past few years, there has been even greater pressure on household budgets, forcing more women aged 50+ to contemplate a return to work.

The picture doesn’t end there of course. Yesterday, the Foreign Office became the latest of many employers to be shamed by the news that it pays its senior women diplomats and other staff 10 per cent less than it does men. Add in the percentage of women on zero hours contracts and the statistics clearly belie the thousands of individual struggles behind them.

This issue generated a good deal of anger among my new network of colleagues: partly, it was the image of an elderly woman used to represent 50+, and in part, it was the frustration that many feel because actually, they say, most have never been busier or worked harder.

Actually, I don’t think this is a male-female issue, particularly. There is no greater security among 50+ men in the workplace than women. Yes, the stats don’t lie about the continuing relative disparity regarding remuneration, but nor do they yet fully reflect the continuing swingeing cutbacks to the waves of middle managers across so many industries, either already announced or recently proposed - Barclays being the latest this week to reveal thousands of coming lay-offs.

What’s more, value is not just about a financial measure but an emotional one too. Meaningful work, when it is sought and found, greatly improves people’s sense of self-worth, and for 50+ women, in particular, goes a long way towards mitigating against the true, universal complaint of that age-group: sudden, destabilising invisibility. But that’s a whole other column.