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Older workers are essential for economic success

22 February 2015

  • Having more over 50s in work is not a threat to younger people’s wages or employment – it is essential for economic progress
  • Studies suggest more older people in employment improves employment and wages for the young
  • In our ageing population, we should welcome higher employment levels for over 50s – if they shift to part-time that may depress average wages but is not a concern long-term
  • Concerns about rising labour force participation by older workers being a threat to younger people are misguided – it is essential for economic progress
  • Failure to encourage longer working lives will imply a larger tax burden on future generations, especially with the aging demographics and rising life expectancy
  • More older workers leads to higher national income, higher national output and more jobs for younger generations
  • We should welcome the rise in part-time workers in later life, which allows an extension of working life that can boost future individual and national income

Keeping more over 50s in employment does not mean fewer jobs for the young: There is extensive evidence showing that having more over 50s in work, is actually associated with both lower unemployment and higher wages for the young. A summary is in a Eurofound study by Rene Boheim [ http://wol.iza.org/articles/effect-of-early-retirement-schemes-on-youth-employment.pdf ] ‘The effect of early retirement schemes on youth employment’ which concludes that increasing retirement age leads to an increase in the wages and employment of younger workers. So it is in the interests of all of us to enable more older people to stay in work.

More over 50s staying in work is a major boost to our economic prospects:  Concerns that later retirement has caused slow wage growth in the post-2008 recovery, despite sharply falling unemployment and the massive job creation of recent years, are misguided. Such simplistic analysis fails to factor in the impact of an aging population and the trend to flexible or part-time work as an alternative to traditional retirement. In fact, these trends are hugely beneficial to our economy and should be celebrated.

The demographics suggest we need to ensure older people are employed for longer: The statistics are startling. Over the next few years, there will be 3.7million more people aged between 50 and state pension age, but 0.7million fewer people aged 16 to 49. Put another way, estimates suggest there will be 13.5million more job vacancies in the UK, but only 7million school-leavers. This net shortfall of workers cannot be filled by immigration of 200,000 a year. With our aging population, business urgently needs to recognise the demographic inevitability – either more over-50s will work longer, or we face declining economic growth.

The contention that early retirement leads to more employment opportunities for young people depends on two assumptions, both of which are flawed: For example, this argument assumes older and younger workers are easily substituted for each other. In fact, the skills of older people such as life and job-specific experience, are generally different from those of younger people who have not yet experienced working life. Therefore, younger and older workers are not normally good substitutes for each other – indeed their roles are often complementary.

There is not a fixed number of jobs in the economy:  It is not true that each older worker in a job denies employment to a younger person. This is not how economies work. There is not a fixed number of jobs. The more spending power in the economy, the more jobs can be created. If companies and individuals earn more, economic activity and employment can increase. In an individual company there may be a fixed number of positions, but only over the short-term. If business is good, the company can create more jobs – but if demand for the company’s goods or services declines, it will reduce the number of jobs. This also applies to the economy as a whole. So keeping more older people in work, means increasing national output, higher lifetime incomes and more money to spend in our aging population. Conversely, if more older people stop work, they will have lower spending power and ultimately there will be fewer jobs for younger people.

Having older people active and productive benefits people of all ages and ensures that more jobs are created:  Younger people’s wages rise as employment rates of older people increase [see Kalwij, Kepteyn and deVos, ‘Retirement of Older workers and employment of the young’] and as the number of workers age 55 and over increases, overall employment and wage levels rise and unemployment falls [see, Munnel and Wu ‘Will delayed retirement by baby boomers lead to higher unemployment among younger workers’].

Historical analysis both in the UK and elsewhere supports this conclusion: For example, after World War II, the dramatic increase in labour force participation by women did not mean fewer jobs for men. Instead, it boosted economic growth as there were more two-earner families with higher disposable income, which created more new jobs as spending power in the economy increased.

UK 1970s’ ‘Job Release Scheme’ failed:  In the 1970s, the UK Government tried to use ‘early retirement’ as a means of addressing youth employment. Its ‘Job Release Scheme’ aimed to encourage older people to leave work and ‘release’ jobs for the young, but the policy failed. Rising early retirement was accompanied by higher unemployment for younger people. Economists subsequently concluded that encouraging more older people to retire is not a way to increase employment prospects for young people over time.  It can actually have the opposite effect.

France has historically tried reducing retirement ages as a policy tool to reduce youth unemployment: From 1971 to 1993 the Government encouraged early retirement, but this led to a fall in employment of both older and younger workers. In contrast, from 1993 to 2005 more older people stayed in work and youth employment rates increased.

There are other examples too: In Germany in the early 1970s, employment of older workers fell by 7 percentage points, but employment for younger workers decreased by 2 percentage points. However, in 1992 the German Government introduced new incentives for older workers to stay in work, leading to a fall in youth unemployment.

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