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The older workers condemned by Covid Thousands have been left unemployed by the pandemic. For over-50s, it could be a life sentence

Thousands of older workers have hit dead-ends in the job market. Credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Thousands of older workers have hit dead-ends in the job market. Credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images


August 21, 2020   7 mins

Five months ago, Sandra Ackland became one of the millions of British workers furloughed after lockdown started. Her income fell by ÂŁ400 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 ÂŁ45,000,” 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.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
3 years ago

Just a point of precision: COVID, or “the pandemic”, has had almost no impact on our economy. “COVID-related health measures”, on the other hand, have had a massive impact.

This isn’t just a grumble from a lockdown skeptic. It matters how we think of this thing going forward. Every stupid face mask rule or social distancing law has a cost. It’s becoming increasingly clear that even as the efficacy of mitigation remains doubtful, these costs, when compounded, can be quite high.

Liz Davison
Liz Davison
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Thank you for voicing what many people feel. This Covid brouhaha is a very peculiar phenomenon and there will be a reckoning in the next couple of years. I constantly berate those who wear a mask unnecessarily (nearly always women). Truly some are so sheep-like they consider it no imposition but it’s now their new normal. We must fight this supine acceptance.

Dr Leah Remeika-Dugan
Dr Leah Remeika-Dugan
3 years ago

We don’t have a pandemic.

We have a virus which ranked THIRD this year 2020 *behind* Influenza B then Influenza A. That is the # of infections were ranked : influenza b, influenza a, covid 19 (in that order).

We DO have a legacy of an epidemic of fear caused by a FALSE narrative which some people describe as a hoax.

Unless we begin to critically question the narrative – we won’t survive this narrative.

That requires stepping out of the tribe of agreement and unpopularly calling out the deception – and I hope we can very very soon take potent action steps to push back before it’s too late.

God help us all.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well I’ve been calling it the ‘scamdemic’ more or less from the start. As you say, we need to critically question the narrative. And not only with regard to Covid but with regard to more or less every aspect of life and governance in the West. Personally I think it may be too late, such is the extent to which the western mind has been both corrupted and turned to mush.

claire.orush123
claire.orush123
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If it is a scam, which I definitely think it is, then I don’t think we’re finished with the overall plan behind it. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that a storm is brewing that will soon (in the next few months) reveal more of what this plan is, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, and will seek to impose further restrictions and controls at a global level. The good news is that, to me, people certainly are waking up as never before and, despite appearances, I think the sinister forces behind the manipulation are doomed to failure, exposure and permanent dismantling. I think they know their time is over and we will see evidence of this as they become more and more desperate and take their behaviour to a point of extremity from which there is no return for them into the shadows from which they’ve always operated.

jmitchell75
jmitchell75
3 years ago

I hope so. I personally don’t think the virus is a scam, it does exist, but the response to it has been blown out of all proportion because it quickly became a tool to beat the populists with. The main target here is Trump in my opinion, so if he loses the US election, positive outcome achieved, message changed, and we return back to some semblance of normal. If he wins, this either gets ramped up again, or another, equally insidious, agenda is pursued … I might be wrong, but it will be interesting to see what happens this November …

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago

Curious that an increasing amount of Doctors are now expressing themselves with views such as the above. Do I detect a shift in the story line? Write this whilst listening to a sublime bit of music by Augustus Pablo. If you want to seek out a better reality……..

David Gould
David Gould
3 years ago

One million dead people ( numbers rising daily ) would I’m sure heartily disagree with your sentiments …………… if they could .
What was the gist of Darwin’s words, ” Those of the species that fail to adapt will not survive in the long term “.

We may well need to permanently adapt for Corona 19 as the common cold research ran for over 50 years without finding a cure for the common cold , just a few fairly ineffective things to treat the resultant symptoms .

Simon
Simon
3 years ago
Reply to  David Gould

I wonder if you read the comment by Doctor Remeika- Dugan carefully? You appear to have missed the first section:-
‘We have a virus which ranked THIRD this year 2020 *behind* Influenza B then Influenza A. That is the # of infections were ranked : influenza b, influenza a, covid 19 (in that order).’
Why are you not more concerned about Influenza B and A more than Covid 19 given this situation?
The elderly and vulnerable die every year from these and, according to many sources, in greater numbers than Covid 19 even this year.
You are right that we almost certainly have to accept that no cure can be found and that the virus is here to stay like colds or the flu. Have you asked yourself why the world has never gone into lockdown because of these? Have you considered the consequences of the lockdown in terms of the physiological and psychological damage done? The deaths of people unable or unwilling to access regular health care because of the pervasive fear and the virtual shutdown of the NHS for ordinary services.
There are many eminent doctors and scientists from relevant fields who do not agree with the prevailing narrative, but whose voices are censored or face attempts at discrediting them.
Too many people are still swayed by the emotive messages of danger, rather than medical research. Isn’t it time to make your decisions about medical matters with your intellect rather than your emotions? Adaptation to a flu-like but actually less deadly virus should not mean lockdowns and face masks for 7 Billion people to protect the vulnerable few.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

Barely any mention of working class jobs all about the middle class professionals but I suppose you did not care when mass EU movement affected us because it did not effect you, so nothing changes.
Welcome to the world we have had to live in for decades

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

No British workers are “lazy” and should “learn new [unspecified] skills”. Nothing to do with lots of motivated and skilled workers coming to a (relatively) high paid market, saturating the work force. Nope.

Heard that countless times from otherwise sensible and moderate people.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Yeh. It was always a class war.

bob alob
bob alob
3 years ago

What never fails to amaze me is how easily people rolled over and accepted the changes to the retirement age, the aim of living and working in a modern society should be to better the working and living conditions of those taking part, more holiday entitlement and a lower retirement age should have been the goal, instead regardless of the pandemic we are facing more poverty as we get older, we will be more reliant on benefits as out health deteriorates and more likely to be unemployed well before retirement age, a backward step by any description.

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago

I should by now be resisting the urge to make any comment about covi world – alas cannot help myself. In my youth as I was trawling through the writings of the likes of Satre, Camus, Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka, Plato etc., I could not help but reflect that wisdom escapes the vast majority of the human race and I am now living the daily confirmation of this. We have centuries of amassed knowledge but appear to have learnt so little. I could easily weep if I was not so busy laughing. Take a look at the Lockdown Sceptic website of a picture of primary school children sitting masked at their shielded desks – indeed an alternative reality. Our ability to believe the most implausible seems to know no bounds. Franz Kafka’s The Trial has to stand as the most revealing exposition of the human condition – covi world revisited.

Simon
Simon
3 years ago
Reply to  Olaf Felts

We humans do seem to have an almost infinite capacity for believing the incredible against the evidence of our own eyes, especially if the incredible is coming from an authority figure. Every time I go shopping I feel like a traitor for wearing a mask, but am not allowed into the supermarket without one. I do like to eat, so I wear one and hate myself every second it is on.
I despair when I see, like today, Sunday, a healthy man of about fifty striding down our deserted street at 6am wearing a mask, or young people doing the same. I am fortunate in that my wife is as sceptical as I am. My close friends have very different views and it is seriously affecting their marriage. I’m sure they aren’t alone. I try to express my views and concerns as calmly as possible to anyone I talk to about the lockdown and find people are quite divided on the topic.
From my point of view, the only way to counter the fear and panic is with the facts as far as we know them. I realise that the truth has become for many a matter of opinion (This is my truth, what’s yours?). I still prefer my beliefs to be based on the best evidence we have.
All the evidence at the moment suggests that I’ve woken up in a parallel universe.

Dr Leah Remeika-Dugan
Dr Leah Remeika-Dugan
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon

The problem is, Simon, that the people are, at large, suffering from PTSD because they’ve been exposed (via msm) to medical carnage, graphically and relentlessly paraded in front of them without the medical training for coping with what they’re seeing and hearing.

When, factually, the overall survival rate is 99.97% (though I’m sure to the public, a percentage of statistically negligible deaths is meaningless to them whenever it’s mentioned, regarding to come to grips with what has been paraded before them). This doesn’t account for the vent mgmt issues (no further comments on that from me).

Relentless. Much like … at least what it reminds me of is War of The Worlds, when the storyline was read out dramatised on the radio a hundred years ago and the poor people, then, had no preloaded skills to distinguish fact from fiction. If we recall, people actually thought Martians were invading the Earth and by and large they reacted to the playbook on the radio broadcast.

I was also just thinking about the turn of phrase, “when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true”.

By the way this is my first opportunity to review the previous comments. Thank you for speaking up (above).

This also reminds me of the coral snake for serpent phobics. As there’s a benign snake that looks very similar.
A. Coral snake = RED ON YELLOW KILLS THE FELLOW
B. king snake = RED ON BLACK WON’T HURT JACK
Yet…for the truly fearful, they’ll kill that poor king snake *every* time – just in case.

If humankind doesn’t critically question this narrative, there’s going to be no more king snakes — and only coral snakes.

Good Wishes

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yet we learned today that retail sales grew 3% in July relative to July 2019. I have read countless articles like this. Indeed, I’ve been reading articles like this since the early 1990s. At this point nobody knows how it’s all going to play out.

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Interesting Fraser – there’s also data out there that since the imposition of the mask, footfall in supermarkets has dropped some couple of million and on-line shopping has increased. Let me take Alexander Johnson by the hand and walk him through an average town centre and see the empty and shutdown shops.

David Gould
David Gould
3 years ago

Welcome to the world of reality, once you get to about 45 it’s usual for your income to reduce employment by employment unless you are very lucky . I gather it is because most folk in that age group & above as employees are thought to have peaked in their fitness of body & mind and their ability to adapt .

Now . for the women in this group add in the onset of their menopause and how it screws their heads & lives up , Drag in the casualties of it in the male population and it’s easy to see why your earning capacity get reduced as you get older .
The only way I see out of it is to be self employed in a fairly non physical theatre of work and coin it whilst you can before Alzheimer’s , wacky baccy etc. etc. or alcohol destroys the old grey matter & the grim reaper takes over hosting duties .

Scott Powell
Scott Powell
3 years ago

The LAST form of diversity you will ever see pushed by the media is for AGE diversity. You’ll get someone’s sexual preference first. Then someone who has x percent of some ethnic minority that is the flavour of the day. Absolute last will be someone who has actually been though sh*t, and seen a lot. No, their viewpoint will be the LAST to be considered.

Olaf Felts
Olaf Felts
3 years ago

Absolutely irrelevant to the below other than – one positive thing of covi world is that it has highlighted to me that there are many people out there with whom I would really enjoy the company of over a beer or two and a jolly good irreverent chat – discussing truth and integrity perhaps! Bless you all.

Simon
Simon
3 years ago
Reply to  Olaf Felts

I’d love to join that conversation, too.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Not sure how thought through this article is…Some young people are fast, effective, cheap and reliable at work. However way more than half are not. As an old broom that knows the corners i can match any youngster who sweeps clean in both hands on manual work and computer based engineering, and far outstrip them in sales and project management . When they are 50+ they’ll hopefully be as good as me. If the woman in the article is any good at sales she’ll be straight back in as good work winners/closers are like hen’s teeth. Though if she’s only getting 45k perhaps she’s not so hot or stuck in a low profit sector? There are still a lot of eat what you kill sales jobs out there and if your present employer won’t give you 30-40% of your net profit then there are plenty that will.