A few days ago I spoke to several women aged between 50-65 working in low-ish wage jobs in unionised companies. Most had worked all their lives, many from the age of 15, bringing up families – without, as they pointed out, tax credits or other childcare support – and who now saw their retirement date receding as the state pension age went up.

These were the common themes of their working lives:

  • Dwindling control over their working hours and shift patterns – playing havoc with caring responsibilities – for children, grandchildren, elderly parents.
  • Employers under pressure, passing the strain on to staff: more demanding targets; hours cut; jobs more dependent on advanced and changing IT skills; new competence-based assessments. All this hit older workers disproportionately – especially women who missed out on training opportunities the first time round, or who might be affected by menopausal symptoms.
  • Older colleagues being managed out on health and capability grounds instead of the employer making adjustments for ageing issues or training older workers properly. Seeing this happen left others fearful: one 63 year old had a job that meant standing for 7 hours a day, moving heavy goods. She gets back and shoulder pain but needs to carry on working, so won’t let on that she’s struggling.  Another works nights but won’t have health checks in case they find a problem that could lose her her job.
  • Pressure from colleagues to retire “why are you still here?”
  • Hiding or putting up with banter about menopause symptoms.

There were good stories too – older women promoted into management roles or given extra time to learn computer skills – or the employer readily changing a woman’s hours to fit in with her caring needs. But these usually relied on an enlightened line manager – and good stories were outnumbered by accounts of women putting up with bad stuff out of fear, and union reps having to step in to assert members’ rights.

The women I spoke to worked for companies that both tick all the “good employer” boxes and recognise unions. Think what it’s like in the rest of the labour market where there’s no union to stick up for them and sort out problems.

Older women workers need and deserve better. They need to keep working because they need the money – women in this age range are unlikely to have good occupational pensions to look forward to while they’re waiting longer to pick up their state pension.

Employers need to train line managers to understand the effects of arbitrary changes to working hours – which can amount to indirect age and sex discrimination as well has making working lives stressful or impossible.  Older women need control over their work patterns including the right to request flexible working. They need time and training to adapt to new work demands; and rights to adaptations so they can work around health issues.

Posted on April 4th, 2013 by Kay Carberry filed under: Blog, Work