More than any of its predecessors, the current Labour government in the UK is committed to raising employment among older workers. Through advice and active support, backed up in some cases by financial incentives, the aim is to increase the number of over-50s in work and reduce dependency on welfare benefits. Since Labour was elected in 1997, the schemes targeted at older workers have proliferated, and further major reform is still planned.
This chapter casts a critical eye over these initiatives. Its central thesis is that although the new initiatives have undoubtedly proved helpful to many individuals, they fail to take account of the profound regional and local differences in the availability of jobs. Indeed, it is in the areas where older workers living on benefits are most numerous that the government's new initiatives seem least relevant.
The chapter begins by outlining the key features of the government's initiatives to help older people into jobs. The description is intentionally brief because much fuller versions can be found elsewhere, not least in departmental publications (see in particular DWP, 2002, 2004, 2006). The factors influencing the effectiveness of the initiatives are then explored. Particularly full consideration is given to the pattern of employment and unemployment across the country, including estimates of the job shortfall affecting older workers in each region.
The government's own figures show that in 2006 a total of 8.8 million people in the UK were aged between 50 and state pension age (currently 60 for women and 65 for men) (DWP, 2006). Of these, nearly 30% (2.6 million) were not working; 1.3 milllion were claiming incapacity benefits, another 140,000 were claiming unemployment benefits, and a further 250,000 were dependent partners of benefit claimants. It is the Labour government's stated aim to move around one million of these older men and women into work.
Labour's reforms: the story so far
Jobcentre Plus lies at the heart of Labour's reforms. It affects all jobseekers and benefit claimants of working age but is of particular relevance to the over-50s because so many of them are claimants. Jobcentre Plus is the product of a merger between the Employment Service and the parts of the Benefits Agency dealing with working-age benefits.