How should society address the extension of our working lives?

Liz photo april 2017With the retirement age soon to go up to 68, The 50-year career is becoming a reality. What are the challenges we face and will they affect men and women differently? 

Liz Sewell is the Director of Belina: Get Ready for Work, a programme that supports women into employment, enterprise and training across London

With Brexit, the gig economy, stagnating wages and low productivity dominating the employability headlines one of the biggest changes seems to be taking place in the background. That is the extension of all our working lives. For young people leaving school this summer they are likely to be working for a minimum of fifty years before they are entitled to their pension. For Women this is an even bigger change as they had previously been able to retire at 60.

Fifty years is a long time to look ahead and make predictions, so let’s look back. Someone starting work fifty years ago, in 1967, might have expected a career in one industry, with many expecting a job for life. Most women would have not expected to work full time for all their working lives. Families were bigger, first time mothers were younger. Going on maternity leave was more likely to mean years rather than months and a return to work would as likely be part-time. Most women’s careers were shorter, and more fragmented.

Women starting work in 2017 will be better educated, they will be older when they have their first child, likely to have fewer children in their life time. Their longer working lives should enable them to participate more in the workforce, and gain ground in terms of pay equality as child rearing takes up a smaller percentage of their working lives.

But we need to be looking at the effects of this longer career on all women. At Belina we work with women, mainly mothers and often single mothers. Our cohort is usually a long way away from work. What they want from their working life is flexibility – something that allows them to take care of their responsibilities as parents as well as earning money. For many professionals that is just what IT has done – allowed them to mold their work around their lives. But for people in low-wage jobs, where they need to be present, like retail, care or cleaning, IT has not delivered them flexibility. These are not jobs that can be done over the internet. We know it is these women who account for many of the families where someone is working, but they are still living in poverty.

Work offers independence, increases confidence and provides an opportunity to maintain a lifestyle of choice.  We do, however, need to ensure that the right type of work is available. we need to challenge the gig economy and encourage organisations to look at what society needs and not allow it to be structured solely for the benefit of the new disrupter organisations like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon – great as they are at creating new ways of working.

Making jobs that appeal and work well for men and women caring for their children should be a priority in the millennium age.  It is all of society’s responsibility to nurture and grow our young people into happy, creative and responsible adults if we want our society to thrive. It is in everybody’s interests to create an environment for people to be able to combine family and caring roles with work that helps them thrive as a unit.

But for many families it is not just childcare that is going to take up their time, care for the elderly is becoming a growing part of family life.

It’s clear that now we’re living in the era of the 50-year career that we should all be doing more to make work “work” for men and women, but it is also true that whilst women continue to take the main responsibility for caring, specialist support and specialist knowledge of women, mothers, lone parents and elder-carers remains crucial.

 

 

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