On your bike! A response to poverty in older people

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When the Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride, in August 2023, suggested that older workers consider work in the ‘gig economy’, such as being a Deliveroo rider, it was immediately controversial.

Don’t expect to retire!

The idea that in retirement you might have to actually earn some money is a break with the social contract that so many people thought they’d signed up to.   If you worked hard throughout your working life then at the magic age (in this country the state pension age is 67) you should be able to put your feet up and live an acceptable lifestyle and never have to work again.  Here we have a government minister saying that is just not realistic.

Not Earning: not Contributing

In fact, the implications were deeper: the demand was that those who were 50 plus should become economically active.  They had chosen to take their pension early, stopped working through ill health or released some of the capital value in their home.  For whatever reason they were not earning money.  Designated as economically inactive, our current economic measures determine that they are not contributing to the wealth and welfare of society.

There are a whole series of issues with this economic paradigm.

Understanding the Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing

The first one is that the only contribution we can make to the economy is to be economically active.  This is a wider trend throughout government that suggests that only things that somebody else pays for are valuable.  I’m not an expert on all of the different calculations that make up our GDP, but, because GDP is the primary measure of society’s wealth, we ignore other important contributions to our wealth and welfare.  We ignore the social benefit of volunteering, caring for children, caring for others who are sick, caring for the elderly.  We fail to measure the value of self-sufficiency, growing your own food, making repairs, DIY or looking after yourself and other in other in ways that means you’re not part of the cash economy.

This money bias undermines the development of policies that should be promoting activities that build stronger families, more community engagement, greater social cohesion and deeper relational resilience.

And inevitably this idea that economic activity is the only answer for older people is as short-sighted as it is patronizing.  But there are some other things I also want to raise in this context.

Underlying Causes of Economic Inactivity

There are 3 things that I believe have increased this economic inactivity for older people.

1 – Culture of toil

The first thing is we have accepted a working culture that has become enslaving, has such systemic reliance on toil, is debilitating mentally, spiritually and physically, that workers exit this toxic environment by appealing to ill health.  Doctors are happy to sign them off sick because this is apparently costless to them.  

Unfortunately, all the evidence is that when you stop engaging in productive activity and identify as somebody who is poorly, it in a cascade of snowballing negative health impacts.  You can become socially isolated. You reduce your physical activity.  You begin to lose your sense of self-worth and identity.  You can become hopeless and helpless.  Bit by bit you enter a downward spiral of physical, mental and spiritual decline.  Too often it results in the breakup of marriages or long-standing relationships. 

The way that our benefits system is set up, there are all sorts of perverse incentives to develop more and more illness.  Long-term illness is treated differently from short-term illness.  If you can demonstrate some kind of disability, you can get additional payments.  Your partner can also become dependent on care allowances as a substitute for unemployment benefit or seeking work.

All these perverse incentives encourage people to leave work as sick and then enter a downward spiral of increasing ill health.

2 – Ageism

The second thing which successive governments have continually failed to address is the lack of the Equalities Commission having a strong agenda for tackling ageism.  This constitutes a huge failure of political will.  Ageism is the one area of discrimination we will all face: we will become older or be dead.

Despite the efforts of organisations like the Centre for Aging Better, the government has still failed to address the mandate of the Equalities Commission and ensure that this is seen on a par with other protected characteristics where discrimination is suffered by tiny minorities of the population.

As a result there is a general failure of employer policy and employer culture to engage effectively with the continued development and evolution of an older workforce.

In fact, one of the key failures in my view is that there’s the lack of structure to support well paid apprenticeships for people who are transitioning from one professional domain to another.  They’ve often got a huge wealth of knowledge and experience that they could take and transfer into that other domain.

3 – Solutions for the lack of economic activity

But the final thing makes me both sad and angry is that the government’s response to the lack of economic engagement by older people is to assume that they should step into entry level jobs and that they should become part of the gig economy.

When I was in the US recently, I was shocked to meet a woman in her early eighties, with a husband who had mobility issues, whose only way of keep making ends meet was to give up the privacy of their own home, by letting it out via Airbnb.  Then she had to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and do a 4-hour Uber shift to have enough money to pay for the groceries.  On top of this, she faced an untreatable blood cancer with her biggest fear being how her husband would cope after her death.

For the UK government to be encouraging a similar kind of attitude, that with 70 years of experience, the only thing that you are suitable for in your old age and the only way that you can sustain a viable lifestyle is to give up the privacy of our own home to strangers and join the gig economy, is scary.

If we were to constantly encourage people to move towards a staged, tapered slowdown in their working activity, from as early as 55, then we would have the opportunity to enable people to move away from these toxic work environments, to move into flexible working, to have the ability to care for grandchildren or elderly parents, to build productive sustainable working engagement on a different basis and to offer 30 or sometimes even 40 or even 50 years of experience, knowledge and skills of a fruitful working life, to serve the next generation.

That would be a visionary approach.  Not harking back to the ‘on your bike’ days of Norman Tebbitt, even if to is now ‘on your eBike’ to do Uber Eats.  Not even inviting them to the social benefits of joining a work team in a McDonald’s but to assume the only choice is the social isolation and insecurity of a delivery driver.

Just consider the difference between asking you to push trolleys around a DIY centre car park, which too often is the only option left to many elderly people, compared to inviting you to come in and be a customer advisor within the store.  With all your knowledge and experience, you can bring you can make a difference to people who still have got lots of mistakes to make in their own lives.

On your Bike!

On your bike?  It shows up a failure to understand the true value of the work that people put in and to only look at it through the lens of a cash economy.

It shows up the failure to prevent the disastrous downward spiral of toxic work environments that lead to illness, that drive people to desperation and a spiral of poorer and poorer health.

It shows up the lack of imagination and the lack of commitment to equality that would enable people from their mid 50s onwards to taper the level of rewarding work they do over time and increase the contribution that they make to society as volunteers, as carers and as mentors to other generations.