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From young workers to older workers: reflections on work in the life process


As older workers approach 65 and the official retirement age, many say that they want the Government and employers to be more flexible over retirement age so that they can continue working if they desire. They think that people should be able to retire before 65 or continue to work if that is what they want. Many of those interviewed now want to go on working as they think they still have much to offer their employers. However, they do not want the official age of retirement to rise from 65 years as is now being mooted by Government.

The research project by the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the University of Leicester, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was able to draw on the thoughts about work and retirement of 97 people who were among over 800 first interviewed by academic researchers as they left school in Leicester to start their working lives in the early 1960s.

The new research found that people’s experience of 40 years of work differed in many respects from that predicted by authors in the 1960s and 1970s. Working lives had been much more mixed and complex.

Only half of the workforce had achieved any qualifications at school or post school and only one third said they had enjoyed work-related training. None of the school leavers from the original 1960s study went on to higher education and only about one third undertook any formal training at work. Despite this some moved into ‘middle class’ jobs as time went on. Those in more ‘middle class’ jobs had far greater job stability, averaging fewer than five jobs through their working life. Those without skills tended to have many more jobs and moved in and out of the labour market more frequently. Many of those who had moved jobs frequently now faced retirement without an occupational pension and with some anxieties about the future.

The research reveals the extent to which people had to adapt to change in the Leicester economy in contrast to the labour market stability that had been predicted in the 1960s and early 1970s. For example, some men had trained in engineering and in the traditional boot and shoe and hosiery industries. As these industries declined, they had entered less skilled work such as preparing food for the snacks and sandwiches business. Despite working in different industries and not using their skills many of the older workers had kept what the researchers call “a very strong sense of occupational identity” which had been formed in their first skilled jobs.

Manufacturing is still the most important industry among those interviewed, however, claiming 28 per cent of the respondents, followed by the service industry at 18 per cent, and 11 per cent in each case in retail and construction.

From the original research it was clear that women had shown themselves to be much more interested in undergoing training in the 1960s even if it meant lower wages initially. Despite this most women were pushed into low status and low skilled jobs by youth employment officers and parents. Most of the boys, meanwhile, had few ambitions for learning and wanted to leave school as soon as possible to earn money.

Now, the same people are often not eager to retire. They want to have the choice to work beyond the retirement age if their employers will keep them. If not, they say that they will look for another job, probably part-time. The researchers argue that many respondents have unrealistic expectations of retirement and when they think about retirement they visualise a life of endless leisure and holidays. Many had given little thought to the prospect that they would be less well off in retirement. Likewise, they chose not to think that they might suffer from poor health. As in other ‘transitions in the life course’ the prospect of retiring “is mediated to some extent by ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ elements”, say the researchers.

William Godwin | alfa
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