The older workers condemned by Covid

Published by UnHerd (21st August, 2020)

Five months ago, Sandra Ackland became one of the millions of British workers furloughed after lockdown started. Her income fell by £400 a month. But she was not too worried since she lived carefully within her means, had just started a new job as a sales executive, and had begun working from home before the pandemic, after moving from the suburbs of London to live by the coast in Camber Sands, East Sussex.

Then last month, after Chancellor Rishi Sunak moved to start easing state support for his job retention scheme, she was made redundant. So she went straight out and landed a job serving food and drinks five days a week in a local beach bar. She added another job as a housekeeper for holiday lettings. “I never thought for a minute that I’d be on minimum wage in a beach bar when only a year ago I was working in an office and earning £45,000,” she says.

Ackland is the mother of a daughter with mental health problems and her teenage stepson has autism. She is 50 years old, a difficult age as dark economic storm clouds gather; huge job losses are announced almost daily and several key sectors, from entertainment to retail, are in meltdown. She isn’t downcast. Instead she spends any spare time setting up her own business, building a website and starting to sell personalised goods, already picking up some trade from former clients. “I just feel people my age have to be able to adapt to change,” she said. “Perhaps I am lucky that I can reinvent myself because I know some people struggle and become gloomy.”

Change can be hard to handle. It is especially challenging for older people, who have spent decades doing the same job, and have watched their firm and their future suddenly smashed by a disease that erupted in China. On a regular basis we hear of household names, from British Airways to Marks & Spencer, shedding vast numbers of staff, while below the radar thousands of small businesses and self-employed people are struggling for survival. We stand on the edge of economic catastrophe while confronting a pandemic that exposes gaping flaws in society even as it speeds up huge changes in the way we live and work.

There has, rightly, been considerable focus on younger generations hurt on several fronts by this crisis. But another chunk of society may, ultimately, suffer even more from these turbulent events. Some analysts fear those hardest hit could be older workers, the pandemic devastating their mental and physical health as well as their wealth. Many men and women in their 50s and early 60s may never hold down a permanent job again, tumbling into a financial hole that corrodes their sense of self-worth just as the state pension age goes up later this year.

Official data shows those hit hardest by pandemic are people at the start and end of the working age range. It raises issues at both ends of the labour market. Yet it also presents our rapidly-ageing society with a new problem. During Britain’s last period of swollen unemployment in the Thatcher era, it was simply accepted people in their sixties would retire, but now things are different.”The need to get people over 60 back into work has never been thought about before in a recession. It is a new thing for this country — but we can’t just shuffle them out of work,” says Emily Andrews, research manager at the Centre for Ageing Better.

Many people in their 50s will live for several more decades. Yet their statistics look grim. Even before pandemic — after years of job expansion — there were one million people aged between 50 and 64 thought to be “involuntarily jobless”. Citizens who have hit their half century also make up almost half the self-employed workforce, their numbers rising nearly two-thirds over the past decade — and this is the group least protected by Sunak’s interventions. Recent research by the Centre for Ageing Better and the Learning and Work Institute discovered the number of older workers on unemployment-related benefits has already nearly doubled due to the virus, rising from 304,000 in March to 588,000 in June, with another 400,000 predicted to lose their jobs when furloughing ends in the autumn.

These are terrifying figures. But it gets worse. One reason for that growth in older self-employment is that workers over 50 struggle to find new jobs, whether due to prejudice, perceived lack of technological skills or health concerns. Research by Business in the Community in February, before most people heard of coronavirus, showed barely one-third of people in this age bracket losing jobs found new ones. Others end up in the gig economy or stuck in menial jobs that waste skills developed over decades. Age bias affects women especially: another study found females over 50 up to 25 times less likely to be called for a job interview than those in their late 20s.

Then there are all the people who struck out on their own because they grew tired of the rat race and commuting, many of whom now find themselves marooned in unexpected difficulties as they try to cling on to freelance work. “There are lots of people like me who packed up conventional jobs but many of these people are struggling now,” says Steve Moore, who had his last ‘proper job’ when he was 40 and has since thrived doing different consultancy work over the past 15 years.

Moore, a former chief executive of David Cameron’s Big Society Network, says people are desperate: “The furlough did not help the self-employed, while these are also the first people to be cut when companies need to make savings since they protect their own staff. Many are also working in areas that are really hurting such as events, media, music and hospitality. Meanwhile there are none of the usual receptions and conferences where you can network, those serendipitous encounters that lead to work.”

Typical of these types is Paul Clarke, a 52-year-old former management consultant. 10 years ago he chucked in a technology job to become a photographer and build a creative career. He has been brilliantly successful, even bagging the European contract for the Oscar film awards — until pandemic struck Britain. “Within two weeks I’d lost six figures in orders,” he told me. “I can’t see film industry receptions being held again in Europe for several years.”

Clarke missed out on all Sunak’s state handouts, spent the first month of the pandemic learning new video skills, and has since managed to rebuild approaching half his income by “taking jobs I would not have touched six months ago”. He calls himself “a scrapper” and is confident he can survive a downturn some fear could be the most severe since the early eighteenth century. But there is a knock-on effect, since he has stopped passing on contracts to colleagues in his field — and he knows several people struggling badly, including one who is having to sell his home to survive.

Clarke still has children at school, while his wife’s elderly parents need support. He highlights how this is the sandwich generation: often caring for parents who are seeing health deteriorate while still supporting their children. Both these challenges have become harder in the pandemic with concern over care homes, closed schools and crashing job markets. People with caring responsibilities or disabilities, who tend to be older, are especially vulnerable to job losses as well as mental health struggles.

This is a bleak picture for people who might have looked forward to easing back into their twilight years of work. There is a misguided belief that this generation has paid off its mortgages and lives in relative prosperity. But there were 617,000 people aged over 50 on Universal Credit last month, which means they must have savings of less than £16,000. This is also the generation that has lost the security of defined pension schemes enjoyed by their predecessors — and many could end up struggling on the breadline for several decades. The number of renters over the age of 50 has more than doubled in the last decade, which could leave them vulnerable when the eviction ban is lifted on Sunday.

One survey last year indicated that many people already thought they had retired too early, with one-third saying they lost all purpose in life after leaving their work. The first month at home might be fun in the garden or on the golf course, but what about the next 50 years — especially if there is no money to fulfil any long-cherished dreams in retirement, let alone cash for some extra care help as health starts to decline? “It is almost like silent suffering,” said Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, a digital jobs website for the over 50s. “This country has an epidemic of loneliness that is especially acute in post-retirement. People get social stimulation from their workplaces and I think the impact of this will be felt for a very long time.”

There is also a growing perception among economists that this crash will be closer in style to the downturn after the 2008 banking crisis in the United States, which hit older workers especially hard, rather than the British version that saw wages stagnate but rising job numbers, especially for older people. It took older workers in the US almost twice as long to find new jobs as younger colleagues, forcing them to take far bigger pay cuts to return to the workplace. One analysis found men in their sixties accepted salaries more than one-third lower than before, compared with a cut of just 1.5% for their colleagues three decades younger. Many ended up dipping into retirement savings, storing up problems for later years.

Among the legacies of that chronic American meltdown were the “deaths of despair” highlighted by Nobel-winning British economist Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case. This pair of Princeton academics showed how working-age men and women without four-year college degrees were dying in huge numbers from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease, sparking a fall in US life expectancy. Among the causes they identified were job losses amid manufacturing decline that led to falling income and less financial security — “this long-term drip of losing opportunities and losing meaning and structure in life,” according to Deaton. There have been suggestions similar concerns started to infect Britain even before the arrival of Covid-19.

Technology is seen as a fresh factor, amplified by the rapid shift online of sectors such as retail during the pandemic. Certainly younger workers are digital natives, as well as being cheaper to employ. But many people in their 50s have been using computers for a couple of decades, growing very comfortable in the digital environment. Regardless, the government will need to offer bespoke training for older workers to help many adapt and return to the workplace as it wakes up to one more headache intensified by this wretched pandemic.

The last thing Britain needs now is old and young generations pitched against each other fighting for the dwindling spoils of a downturn, especially when the wounds of Brexit remain raw and people in their twenties are poorer than their predecessors. But nor should policy-makers ignore the gravity of issues confronting many older workers. For have no doubt that in a fast-ageing society it is a disaster in economic, human and societal terms to have swathes of economically-inactive people in their fifties and sixties.

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