Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Help the Over-50s Work Part-Time

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Help the Over-50s Work Part-Time

Article excerpt

Labour's three social priorities in its first term have been work, work and work. Whether you are young and on the dole, a lone parent or disabled, the messages have been the same: work, if you can do it, is good for you; if you can't find a job with decent pay, we'll pay you to take a low-wage one. Most important, work is the best route out of poverty.

The results are impressive. A million more people in work; youth unemployment shrinking; total claimant unemployment set to fall below a million for the first time since the mid- 1970s. All these trends are no more than an extension of what had been happening under John Major, but some of Labour's attempts to encourage more people to consider the option of working appear to be bearing fruit. For the first time anyone can remember, the number of lone parents without work is falling.

But are we in danger of becoming a nation of workaholics? We continue to labour for more hours than other Europeans, despite the implementation of working time regulations that forbid employers to make workers do more than a 48-hour week (except when employees want to or when their bosses can think of a good reason for making them do so).

To be fair, Margaret Hodge, a minister at the Department for Education and Employment, has launched a "work/life balance campaign" this year to persuade employers that being a slave-driver is in nobody's interest. More tangibly, the working families tax credit has made it fruitful for parents to take on part-time work, providing they do at least 16 hours a week.

Yet the present government has come nowhere near reversing one of the most destructive trends in the organisation of work: the large-scale exclusion of the over-50s. The promotion of "cool Britannia" and the advent of three relatively youthful party leaders can have only intensified our apparent quest for dynamic thirtysomething workaholics. Now 50-year-olds withdraw quietly into a retirement that is likely to last about as long as their working lives. (Just look at Chris Patten, who has ruled out a return to British politics because he will be 60 when he finishes his present stint as a European Commissioner.)

The result of this thinking is that one in three men aged between 50 and 65 is not working, compared to one in six in 1980. During the 1990s, a man in this age bracket became 20 per cent more likely to be out of the labour force, while a woman aged 25-34 became 20 per cent less likely. Rejecting the over-50s will become more damaging on an economic level, as the 1960s baby-boomers begin to grey: by 2020, there will be two million fewer people in the 16-50 age group and two million more who are over 50 but below state pension age.

A second-term agenda should put as much emphasis on a more rational distribution of work as the first term put on work as a good in itself. …

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