Older man trouble

The State of Working Britain
September 29, 2000

It is a reflection on the speed of change in working Britain that parts of this book appear dated soon after publication. The inevitable price of putting pen to paper in the final months of the 20th century is that references to the "current decade" are overtaken by events before the ink has dried. But more than the vagaries of the calendar are at work. The reforms introduced by the Labour government in its first three years are having profound effects on Britain at work. It is for this reason that the analysis of low pay by Mark Stewart and holiday entitlement by Susan Harkness, rather than taking the debate in to new territory, make the case for legislation that has already been introduced. We now want to know whether the measures are having the impact intended. What has the minimum wage done to tackle poverty pay? Are workers taking their legal entitlement to paid holiday? Alas, we will have to wait for the next examination of the state of working Britain to find out.

But this series of papers, edited by Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth, is still a treasure trove for academics, policy-makers and those with a professional interest in the world of work.

There are a number of quasi-academic writers who have made a comfortable living out of predicting dramatic changes in our working lives. According to one, we may soon all be "living on thin air". Another predicts the rise of the portfolio worker flitting from job to job. Imagination, clever phrases and anecdotal evidence combine to paint a Turneresque picture of swirling colours and movement.

The State of Working Britain is everything such volumes are not. Here facts rather than phrases flow. There are tables rather than tendentious theories. This is a painstaking survey of the recent past rather than a rough picture of what might be. It is all the more valuable for that. As one would expect from the foremost academics in the field, axes are not ground but facts are presented cold and layered neatly on top of each other.

Some of the changes will be obvious even to the most casual observer. The increase in the proportion of women in the workforce is something that could scarcely be missed. But what of the decline of the older male worker? Why has the working man in his 60s become such a threatened species? Will he return? Just why have the sisters started doing it for themselves? Is it the free market and feminism walking hand in hand or do the legislators deserve credit?

In total, the proportion of the population at work today is similar to that when men undertook paid work and women stayed at home to look after the housework and the children. It is the replacement of older men with young and middle-aged women that is the distinctive workplace phenomenon of our age.

The rise of the woman as worker is easier to account for. Sex discrimination laws and the Equal Pay Act played some part, but it was the right to paid maternity leave that made all the difference. Before, the proportion of women in the workforce rose in the immediate post-school years and dropped dramatically in the child-rearing years before rising again. That slump has all but disappeared. Women have taken up their right to return to the same job after maternity leave in numbers that the legislators could scarcely have imagined. As a result, women enjoy longer job tenure and the benefits that go with that. The people who have not yet benefited are part-time workers, mainly women, who have not enjoyed the rise in status and wages. Could this be the next change that equality legislation helps bring about? I hope so.

As for the older male worker, he has been the victim of recession. The rise of early retirement schemes, the concept of long-term sickness and the drop in wages such workers are likely to experience in returning to the active labour force after redundancy have combined to leave men in their 60s and in some cases 50s idle. With growing pressures of an ageing population this is a trend, unlike the rise of the working woman, that the authors think unlikely to continue too long into this century.

Among the other areas examined in depth are those of wage distribution and training. On the former, it is a sorry story of a growing divide between the well-qualified work-rich and the low-pay/no-pay poor. The new women workers, rather than taking the place of the working man in the same family, have created the phenomenon of the double-income work-rich/time-poor couple existing side by side with the no-income couple and the single parent with no work but lots of responsibilities.

Once trapped in low pay, it is rare for workers to escape. The workforce might be more flexible but there is a class system in place that is of almost feudal rigidity for the poor.

On training, Britain's inability to produce a skilled workforce to match the world's best has long been bemoaned. It was the subject of debate at the first Trades Unions Congress meeting in 1868. Not enough has changed - though the authors note that a unionised workforce adds a full day's extra training a year to the level a worker would otherwise receive. Yet this and the recognition of unions' role in reducing pay inequalities are rare mentions of the impact of trade unionism on the workplace. It is an omission the editors admit and one, along with others, they promise to put right in a subsequent volume. I look forward to that. In the meantime, this detailed, if incomplete account is one that merits close study.

John Monks is general secretary, Trades Unions Congress.

The State of Working Britain

Editor - Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth
ISBN - 0 7190 5646 2 and 5647 0
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 285

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