The biggest challenges to policy makers are always the ones caused by what’s happening in the real world – changes in human behaviour, the environment or from technological change. Politicians are forever tempted to appear energetic and effective by announcing changes in structures – moving the deckchairs rather than tackling the problem. There are some great examples of this from the current government. The highlights of which would include the biggest top down reorganisation of the NHS which has added to rather than diminished its problems. The introduction of expensive, unproven Police and Crime Commissioners at a time of huge cuts to police numbers risk public safety. And the creation of chaos in education through unplanned creation of free schools adding to surplus places whilst ignoring the pressing needs for more school places elsewhere. As Caius Petronius famously said in AD 60 ‘we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising: and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation’
The really massive challenge that faces our generation is that of an ageing population. This puts strains on the public finances through increased demand for health and other services to support older living. And it raises serious questions about how we finance older living and the role of pensions in this. And Esther Rantzen’s launching of Silverline is a reminder that the problems of loneliness, health and wellbeing are likely to grow as we grow older.
So what are the policy responses that Labour should be considering as it prepares its manifesto?
We need to build on auto enrolment to have effective ways of the employer, employee and the state sharing the cost of future pensions. If this isn’t done effectively and there is a race to the bottom in pensions provided by employers, the public purse will be in danger of picking up the costs through welfare support as an ever increasing number of pensioners find themselves in poverty and ill health in old age. The age at which people can access their pension is rising. This is likely to continue in future years- but it is a very crude way of responding to the challenge and contains many other risks. In particular an ageing workforce risks exacerbating the problem of youth unemployment with fewer replacement jobs being created as retirement is delayed.
And there are many jobs for which working longer create particular difficulties. Firefighters are currently engaged in a campaign to highlight their understandable concern about the impact of working longer alongside the need to prove their fitness to carry out their role effectively. And the energy that is needed to teach a class of 6 year olds or 16 year olds is harder to summon up as people get into their 60s. There are many other examples where older working presents new challenges for the employee and the employer.
But there are other ways of responding to this than working people hard until they become less effective and then using capability procedures to remove them from the workforce. A pattern that is growing in a number of sectors silently and insidiously. Instead why not restructure pensions so that they operate more effectively allowing a gradual move into retirement? Why not give older workers the right to work part-time so that people can plan a sensible transition from the workplace to their next stage of life?
The chief executive of a local construction company recently took part in a programme where he went back to the shop floor. He told me it was an illuminating experience because he found that there were older workers who were struggling with the demands of full time but keen to continue. And he found there were younger workers who were keen to progress but lacked the knowledge of the business to have the necessary confidence to contribute fully. He put these two problems together and used his older workers to work part-time mentoring the younger workers. This grew capacity and strength in the business and meant the institutional knowledge wasn’t lost but was rather built upon by the next generation. He said it was a bit more expensive than conventional training but more effective. Why shouldn’t government encourage this sort of older workforce transition planning by looking at the incentives and rewards it gives those employers that are transition into retirement friendly?
If the last two decades have made strides with more family friendly workplace policies the ageing workforce surely means that the challenge of the next two decades is how to make the workplace friendly for people who want to move from work into ‘retirement’ in a more gradual way. This is a challenge for everyone but one worth putting our collective minds to. The prize is great – healthier lives, more balanced workforces and a stronger, more resilient economy.