All About Age: May is all about the General Election 2015. But what does it all mean for 'age' concerns?

05 May 2015


Political fever, posturing and rhetoric is increasing in the run-up to the general election. Pundits are predicting the closest and most interesting election of recent years. We've ignored the smoke and mirrors of political hustling and positioning for possible coalitions. Here we focus on what the parties and their manifestos say about age and the workplace.

Age is not the hottest political issue in this election. It hasn't attracted the same sort of attention as housing, employment and the economy. Even so, age has featured in most of the parties' manifestos in one form or another.

"Train young people and get them off the dole and in to work" - David Cameron

Political rivals may not put it in quite the same terms as David Cameron. Compared with the rest of the population, 16-24 year olds are almost three times more likely to be out of work. Getting young people back into work and 'vocation-ready' is a key political test. As a result, policies on apprenticeships have been produced by all the parties and featured throughout the campaign.

One of the key questions is how to pay for expensive youth training programmes. The Conservatives promise to use fines imposed on banks involved in rigging interest rates. This windfall will be used to "train young people and get them off the dole and in to work".

The Conservatives have also pledged three million extra apprenticeships over the next parliament.

Labour has stated it will have an apprenticeship available for every school leaver who gets the grades. By 2020, the Liberal Democrats promise to double the number of businesses hiring apprentices.

UKIP has announced a plan to allow young people to start an apprenticeship while at school. This training would take the place of four of their non-core subjects at GCSE level. The Greens will provide an apprenticeship to all qualified young people aged between16 and 25 who do not have one and want one.

The Scottish National Party has launched a youth manifesto. This includes a commitment to deliver 30,000 Modern Apprenticeships each year. It also sets out a statement that it will press the UK to adopt the European Youth Guarantee. This promises faster intervention for out of work youth.

Reading the manifestos, it appears that various parties believe that apprenticeships provide the answer to tackle youth unemployment. But at what cost?

The National Union of Students recently published its Forget Me Not report in February this year, which painted a bleak picture of the reality for many apprentices. The report gives examples of apprentices who cannot afford to travel to their place of work or study. It goes on to say that apprentices must receive higher wages if the programme is to solve youth unemployment. The report came two months after the Apprentice Pay Survey 2014, which showed that younger apprentices were hardest hit by minimum wage non-compliance.

It is thus unclear whether the parties will be able to solve the problem of youth unemployment through apprenticeships alone. Doing so while satisfying the needs of both apprentices and employers will be tough.

Older workers

There has been an increased focus on the experience of older workers in the last Government. This was partly due to the abolition of the default retirement age. It was also a response to an increase in the number of older workers. This demographic change looks set to continue and the parties need to tackle this key area in terms of what it means for workers and employers.

The Coalition Government published its Fuller Working Lives report in June 2014. It looked at several initiatives relating to older workers. It also appointed Dr Ros Altmann as the Business Champion for Older Workers.

The focus on older workers looks set to continue in the next parliament, whatever the outcome of the election. David Cameron raised the issue when speaking at the launch of his party's small business manifesto.

Mr Cameron said that Britain needs an "economy and culture that really values older workers". This was in response to a question of whether a future Conservative government could cut national insurance for companies employing older workers.

Labour recently launched its age manifesto: 'A Better Future For Older People'. It also announced that it would appoint Miriam O'Reilly as its Champion for Older People. Ms O'Reilly sued the BBC over age discrimination and won.

One suggestion for supporting older workers mentioned by Labour is consulting on allowing grandparents to share in parents' unpaid parental leave. It cites the fact that "up to 1.9 million grandparents have reduced their hours, or given time off to look after their grandchildren".

The outcome of any consultation on this will be interesting. Since June 2014, the option to request flexible working was extended to all eligible employees. It is unclear therefore whether the 1.9 million figure pre-dates this new flexibility. Do grandparents now have their working needs met by the flexible working regime, without the need for a further extension in relation to parental leave?

The majority of the focus in Labour's Age manifesto is on what happens on retirement and beyond. This is a theme shared by many of the other parties. There seems to be little on offer for older people who remain in employment. This may be because there is already legislation in place to deal with this. Age discrimination provisions should, in theory, provide older workers with protection against adverse treatment in the workplace.

Reports last year such as the TUC's 'Age Immaterial Women Over 50 in the Workplace' and the Department of Work and Pensions' Fuller Working Lives document suggests there is still much to do in this area. As demographics shift, employers will need to support people throughout their career. This will extend later into life than has usually been the case.

And what about pensions and retirement?

Pensions and retirement feature in all the main parties' manifestos. They look set to continue to be a political 'hot potato' for years to come. Automatic enrolment and workplace pension reform is here to stay. None of the main political parties commit to review this policy.

Consensus also emerges over recent pension reforms. The new 'freedom' or flexibility in how people access their pension savings will remain. There is divergence on whether the current framework of guidance is enough. UKIP demands much more resource for advice to help people make key retirement choices.

So it will still be 'all about age...'

Many aspects of this General Election are unpredictable. One thing that is certain is that whoever occupies Number 10 on 8 May will have to deal with age. Britain's shifting demographics ensures it will remain high up the political agenda.

First published on Thompson Reuters Accleus on 1 May 2015.


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