Working Conditions: How Are Older Workers Protected in France?

By Pailhé, Ariane | Population, January-April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Working Conditions: How Are Older Workers Protected in France?


Pailhé, Ariane, Population


Since the 1980s, changes in the organization of production and distribution have led to a general deterioration of working conditions, though employees sometimes enjoy greater autonomy in the management of their work. In this context, are older workers better protected than their younger counterparts, be it in terms of working time flexibility, physical strain or commercial constraints such as the pace of work dictated by demand, contact with the public or other sources of tension?

These questions are difficult to answer, since results may be distorted by selection bias, notably due to exclusion of older workers from the labour market (early retirement, unemployment etc.). Using survey data on working conditions in 1984, 1991 and 1998, Ariane PAILHÉ attempts to overcome this difficulty.

Following the recent reform of the pension system, and the lengthening of the contributory period, studies of this kind are of crucial importance.

In France, labour force participation rates for people over 55 are low: 62% for the 55-59 age group and 15% for the 60-64 age group according to the latest population census in 1999. The employment rate, which measures the proportion of persons in employment among the population of working age, is even lower (respectively 54% and 13%). At the same time, the proportion of under-25s is falling - the size of these birth cohorts has decreased and the time spent in schooling has lengthened - while the share of 40-55 year-olds is increasing, leading to a rise in the average age of persons in employment (Molinié, 1998).

Aiming to address the problems of pension system financing and increasing dependency rates, the pension reform of 21 August 2003(1) is founded on a lengthening of the contributory period and hence the prolongation of working careers. This new approach, initiated by the act of 1993(2), goes against practices set in place during previous decades, when institutional measures such as the lowering of normal retirement age, the development of early retirement, dispensation from job seeking and nondegressive benefits for unemployed people over 55 were introduced as a means to lower the number of surplus workers quickly without generating industrial unrest. This approach also runs counter to the practices of employers, who are often unwilling to hire workers over the age of 50 (Jolivet, 1999; Le Minez, 1995). Furthermore, it goes against the aspirations of many older workers who would like to retire earlier. The question of working conditions is often central to their demands, as illustrated by the development of labour disputes within certain professions (Belfer, 2004) and their role in the protests against pension reforms in the spring of 2003.

Poor working conditions damage health and lead to differential ageing (Teiger, 1989). Working history and, more specifically, working conditions influence life expectancy (Hayward et al., 1989, Moore et al., 1990, Desplanques et al., 1996), disability-free life expectancy (Cambois et al., 2001), and, more generally, health in old age (Cassou et al., 1994). Moreover, studies by epidemiologists and ergonomists indicate that certain work constraints are particularly detrimental for older workers (Krause et al.,2000;Laville, 1989).

For this reason, selection mechanisms traditionally provided a means to make adjustments between age and working conditions in the workplace through a process of worker reassignment, but also through exclusion from the workforce (Volkoff, Molinié, 1995; Molinié, 1998). Hence, during the post-war boom years, protection policies for older workers were prevalent, particularly in large companies, with personnel management based on tenure, protection against redundancy for the oldest workers, and allocation of less strenuous tasks to workers approaching retirement age. The labour market was segmented (Doeringer, Piore, 1971; Piore, 1978; cases et al., 2001) and workers with long tenure were relatively well protected.

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Working Conditions: How Are Older Workers Protected in France?
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