Photo of an old suitcase with name tags and labels. Photo © Hin Pang for

Part of the Wai Yin Centre’s 20 year anniversary exhibition © Hin Pang.

As part of a collaborative project, Wai-Yin, a community centred organisation in Manchester, and the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce are working together to explore the views of older Chinese migrants about rises in the State Pension Age and broader public policy measures meant to encourage workers to delay retirement.

Over a six week period, we have worked with a group of eight older people within the Manchester Chinese community to explore the feasibility of working longer in the kinds of work which they do. We also interviewed members of the Wai Yin executive board to find out the big challenges facing the community with regard to employability.

Government policy to raise retirement ages presents three major challenges for the Chinese community, particularly first generation migrants.

First, many within the community are employed in the catering sector in physically demanding and stressful work in which the expectation is for very early retirement (before 55).

Second, a large proportion have spent most of their careers self-employed, usually owning and running family businesses. Consequently, they cannot rely on employers to provide access to retraining, flexible working and phased retirement which could help workers delay retirement.

Third, first generation Chinese live in a close community; have few social networks; and often lack sufficient English skills to either find re-employment or participate in government sponsored training.

Extended working life for migrant workers, like those in the Chinese community is therefore a big challenge. The Chinese concept of retirement is based on enjoying the rest of one’s life, therefore, working in old age signals that one has met with financial misfortune.

LFS statistics show the challenge which older migrant women face in remaining economically active. They are 5% less likely to be in work than UK born older women, and more likely to report seeking or wanting to work. Those who are unemployed are 7% more likely to have been out of work for a year or more.

Work for first generation Chinese people is tightly entwined with both the family and community. The group discussed how many couples set their retirement dates according to when their children complete university and financial commitments reduce.

For women, this period can be a double displacement – losing both the routine of work and family caring responsibilities. This leads many to take a more prominent role within the local community – volunteering, taking on caring responsibilities on behalf of family members and neighbours, and doing occasional work.

For some women who have undergone a divorce or bereavement, paid work in later life is a financial necessity, as retirement savings are too often lost in a family break up. For them, later life work prospects outside of the local community are often bleak. A Wai Yin advisor, for example, recounted how an older client was unable to secure a cleaning job after being asked by her interviewer to read aloud the safety instructions on a bottle of bleach.

It is common for older job seekers to be pushed into work which is below their skills and potential, and this is particularly true for older migrants whose language proficiency hold them back. One of the things which the group noticed was the skills shortages within the Chinese community which could be supplied by older people. Most notable are the large number of elderly Chinese who need Cantonese speaking carers and helpers. What is stopping older Chinese migrants from using their skills in these ways is the need for formal qualifications which in turn require a necessary level of English proficiency.

Wai Yin, like many groups representing migrant communities around the country, have sought to bring formal qualifications within the reach of their constituency. An NVQ programme for elder home care was developed for people whose first language is not English. However, there was low take-up of the training because of the time intensiveness.

The group was keen on a system which was developed in Japan but is being applied in mainland China (and apparently the Isle of Wight) known as Fureai Kippu within which young-older volunteers who provide help to the elderly to gain credits toward help and support which they may need when they themselves become elderly.

The beauty of the system is that to join requires a small amount of training, but can offer a pathway to more extensive training. The group cited several reasons why they thought a system like Fureai Kippu could work within their context: the closeness of the community; the importance attached to respecting the elderly in Chinese culture; and the transferability of skills (especially Cantonese language skills) into work which is respected and valued.

The group identified a couple of recommendations with regard to older migrants’ employability, and in this regard the women members of the group were most vocal:

  1. First, more advice and support is needed for older migrants in terms of their pension and employment rights. Many are unaware of when they can draw their pensions and this affects when they sell their business and retire.
  2. Second, measures to encourage longer working lives need to take account of the diversity of cultural meanings attached to work. Within the Chinese community, as mentioned, older people who are in work are often stigmatised as not having sufficiently saved for retirement. Volunteer work, however, is respected as serving the community. Fureai Kippu is potentially a bridge between paid work and volunteering.
  3. Finally, community groups like Wai Yin can play an important role in matching older community members’ skills and abilities with the needs of the local community. Innovative approaches to work and retirement can emerge through grassroots level engagement which community groups are best placed to deliver.

Matt Flynn is Director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, www.agediversity.org

Louise Wong, Community Development Worker for Wai Yin, also contributed to this blog post. To find out more about the Wai-Yin centre visit www.waiyin.org.uk

Posted on August 20th, 2013 by Matthew Flynn filed under: Blog

One Response to Older migrant women – issues of employability and retirement

  1. Comment made by Laura | Dutch Law Firm AMS on Sep 10th 2013 at 2:11 pm:

    I totally agree with your suggestions, in the Netherlands (and everywhere else in Europe) we see more of the less the same problems occur.