Addressing Exclusion and Inequality in Late Working Life

In this blog we argue that there is a need for new research which explores the role of life course factors on inequalities in opportunities to prolong employment

The ageing of societies in Europe and beyond has led to calls for prolonged working lives and increasing participation of older workers in the labour market. However, as the SPERI research agenda for labour and decent work also notes, the structure of the labour market, including unequal labour market access and growing exclusion of certain groups (by gender, ethnicity and social class for instance), as well as in certain industries, create considerable social problems of increasing social inequalities and marginalisation. These inequalities are especially prevalent in late working life stages, with circumstances influenced by the impact of social policy measures throughout the life course. Working life is institutionally extended by raising (or eradicating) the standard retirement age and the age at which state pensions can be received, leading to greater inequalities for those who do not engage in later working lives. Circumstances in later working lives are also related to the extent of age discrimination in the labour market, negative age stereotypes and ageist employer policies. It is also evident that there has been a failure of policy intervention in many European countries in relation to these trends.

There is also a tendency for policies to be too simplistic and cross-sectional, failing to sufficiently engage with the need to develop a systematic long-term life course focussed approach to policy design. For instance, policies towards the activation of older workers have often neglected that it is shaped by various factors including pension systems, employment regulations, and organisational strategies, in addition to events and circumstances experienced over the life course of individuals (such as social origin, childhood stresses and strains, educational opportunities including lifelong learning, labour market entry, care responsibilities, unemployment, poverty, migration, and health conditions). To take the example of health, while it can certainly impact on the capacity to undertake employment in late working life, health conditions are often the result of health inequalities throughout the life course (including access to health promotion services, medical care, poverty, stress and housing conditions). These examples emphasise the need to look beyond notions of late working lives in isolation, but to explore the impact of longer-term life course orientated experiences. However, all too often policies neglect how these characteristics vary by gender (such as care provision), class and ethnicity, and the long-term impact of these trends.

There is also evidence of major sources of increased risks associated with the continuing de-standardisation of the life course and employment with its attendant rise in precarity, coupled with the promotion of an activation paradigm that emphasises individualisation in place of solidarity. These changes have affected women significantly. Although female employment biographies have altered in recent years it is still the case that childbirth and childcare, illness of a close relative, and caregiving for older parents, mark the beginning of disruptions and discontinuities for many women which, consequently, affect decisions concerning labour force exit and the resources they carry into retirement. As such, these areas require attention.

These issues will be addressed through the course of a project with Professor Alan Walker, at the University of Sheffield and European colleagues in a four country comparative project on ‘Exclusion and Inequality in Late Working Life (EIWO)’, funded by the Swedish Research Council for Health and Working Life. The research aims to shed new light on the role of life course factors on circumstances in late working life, including the impact of exclusion and inequalities on opportunities to prolong employment. It will also explore the role of policy developments in the four countries (Britain, Germany, Poland and Sweden) in creating and challenging these inequalities. In doing so it aims to develop policies to minimise risks that accumulate over the life course, and to mitigate exclusion and inequalities in late working life. It will assess institutional and corporate-level influences on unequal employment chances and life-long learning opportunities, security levels and their impact on late work trajectories. In doing so it will inform employers’ policies for inclusive practice by enhancing understanding of alternative practices within Europe. It is intended to push the boundaries of knowledge about late working life, helping us to better understand the inequalities and exclusion that exist within late working life and the reasons for this. By undertaking comparative analysis, it will enable the research team to identify the potential for inclusive and equal prolongation via a theoretically driven and gender-sensitive approach. EIWO will provide an opportunity to identify policies promoting life-long learning processes and flexible approaches to prolonging working lives, which avoid increased exclusion and inequality.

Using a variety of methods EIWO will involve drawing on data from national and European databases, as well as qualitative approaches. Its approach is in accordance with the SPERI agenda to better understand companies and how they operate, through gathering qualitative data from organisational and biographical interviews. This will enable the project to provide an empirically driven insight into the extended working lives agenda and how inequalities and exclusion can be limited by providing case studies of good practice.