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Women and Ageism: Economic Illusion or Fact

You may have never heard of the term “Frequency Illusion” but now that I’ve mentioned it chances are that you will hear it again some time very soon. “Frequency Illusion” is the phenomenon where you hear a piece of news or information or see something and very soon afterwards encounter the same object or information again, often repeatedly.

Since turning 50 some years ago and heading all too fast towards the next significant birthday, I seem to be confronted on an almost daily basis with facts and stories about ageing women. It’s everywhere – on the news, in magazines, on the web at home and at work. I don’t think it’s an illusion, I do believe there has been an increase in the frequency and volume of information on the issues facing women in the third age that reflects the increasing focus of society, the media, politicians and from women ourselves on ageing and its impact on our careers, family life and future work and earning prospects.

Since 2000, the proportion of people aged 50-64 in work has grown from 61% to 66% in 2014.The employment rate for people over 65 has similarly risen from 8% to over 14%. This older working group however contains a lot of disparity linked to age, occupation and education and there are significant challenges experienced by many women in this age group. Within the UK, three in five female employees (aged 50+) work in three sectors characterised by low paid jobs; education, health and retail. All sectors that are predicted to shrink in employment numbers. In a recent Radio 5 survey into ageism, one in five adults said they had experience ageism, 32% of them in the workplace. Worryingly in this survey, Scotland had the second highest incidence of ageism in the workplace, just behind Wales.

And whilst employment rates amongst the 50+ age group are rising, across the UK there are over 3 million unemployed people aged 50-64 who are actively seeking work. Approximately 1 million of these people have been made “involuntary workless” or as Business in the Community describes it “pushed out of their jobs” for reasons of redundancy, ill health or early retirement. What this essentially means, is that there are millions of people over 50 who would like to work but can’t find a job. Within my own circle of 50+ friends and colleagues, this seems a particularly serious issue for many women, who may also have experienced divorce or single parenthood and now find themselves the sole household earner and faced with very real challenges in re-entering or remaining in work.

A number of experts are also highlighting the potential challenge facing many women in this older age group in seeking work, as their jobs and skills do not match those sectors predicted to grow. Older women on average have lower levels of formal qualifications and are less likely to engage in training, either through not working in sectors that have invested heavily in workforce development or having missed earlier career development opportunities due to a whole host of reasons linked to caring responsibilities or extended periods not in paid employment. A recent study across the OECD highlighted the fact that women do more unpaid work than men, many choosing to combine work with family responsibilities, something we all know, but interestingly what this study also demonstrated was this comes with a cost to many women’s long term career and earning prospects. The effect of the boomerang generation is also adversely impacting many women, with over three million older women within the UK having adult children still living at home.

In Scotland, the proportion of older women (50+) has been rising steadily since 2004, from 24% to 28% in 2011. Many of these older women are likely to earn less than older men, on average 20% less, and to have more responsibility for caring for elderly relatives or grandchildren. This trend is likely to continue as more and more of us baby-boomers and Generation Jones’s (that’s anyone born up to the mid 1960’s) become a larger proportion of the ageing workforce.

The recent increase in retirement age has also impacted many working women, the STUC have identified that many women in the 50-64 age group are less likely to be eligible for full state pensions or to have access to an occupational pension, often having either restricted access to schemes or breaks in contributions due to childcare. Figures show that women have on average £32k in defined pension schemes as opposed to £62k+ for men. Analysis of single women households suggests that this age group may also be negatively impacted by a changing welfare system that has a focus on family units as opposed to individuals.

So for many women in Scotland ageing is not an economic illusion.

It would be hard reading this data and statistics, not to feel a little depressed at the potentially very bleak future for many women. But there is a positive side. With this increase in focus on ageing in society and in the workplace, there has also been a growing recognition of the need to specifically look at third age work requirements, particularly for women.

A report last year by the UK Government into older people, recognised the need for a national focus on retaining, retraining and recruiting workers over 50 and it identified a whole package of policy measures to support flexible working, training needs and to protect earnings.

There are also a growing number of women like myself, now choosing self-employment as a career option, 10% of women in Scotland aged 50-64 are now self-employed. Many cite greater flexibility and overcoming challenges of age discrimination as their reasons for entrepreneurship. The majority of new businesses in the UK are created by people in their 40s and 50s, the evidence shows that these “olderpreneurs” have a 70% chance of survival compared to 28% for younger people. Little research exists into the female “olderpreneur” and the contribution this group could make to the economy, but we know that in Scotland if woman started businesses at the same rate as men, this would add an additional 5% to GDP or the equivalent of an extra £7.6 billion to the national economy. So the opportunity for policy makers and government to develop a package of targeted support measures and incentives to support female “oldpreneurs” is there.

Similarly, both the Scottish Commission into Older Women and Business in the Community have also identified a range of practical measures that would support more women to remain in meaningful and rewarding work or to develop new third age careers, these include a greater emphasis on training, agile or flexible working, carer support and pay gap transparency.

I hope in the future we will see greater and faster progress on a range of government and business measures specifically focused at addressing gender ageism at work and in society. As someone very wise once said, “all problems are an illusion of the mind”, ageing and gender is definitely one “frequency illusion” that we can solve.

Dr Lesley Sawers

Executive Chair


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