With labour shortages roiling the economy, policymakers are pulling every lever they can to get more people into work. But is MP Jon Ashworth's plan for Jobcentres and over-50s up for the challenge? Aveek Bhattacharya thinks not, exploring why getting the right support to adults at the right time is extremely tricky.
With labour shortages roiling the economy and contributing to the country’s inflation problem, it is no surprise to see policymakers pulling every lever they can to get more people into work. The number of ‘economically inactive’ 50-64-year-olds taking early retirement has risen by over 300,000 since before the pandemic, so attention has naturally been drawn to these older groups. Earlier this week, Jon Ashworth, Shadow Work and Pensions secretary, presented Labour’s response to this challenge, arguing that Jobcentres should do more to help over 50s who don’t want to claim benefits find work that fits their needs.
Ashworth is surely correct that there is a constituency of early retirees that would be interested in returning to the job market but don’t know where to start. We shouldn’t overestimate how big it is – a survey last year found that 70% of economically inactive people in their early 50s do not want to work – but it exists. It is less clear that Jobcentres are the best way to reach those that want help.
As Ashworth says, if you are an over 50 who has left the workforce, but could be tempted back by a job that fits your health, financial circumstances, and caring responsibilities, “Jobcentre won’t help you because you’re not signing on for universal credit. You don’t need it – but you want something”. That something is careers information, advice, and guidance.
Yet as we at the Social Market Foundation found in our analysis of the English careers guidance system last year, getting the right support to adults at the right time is extremely tricky. Though still far from perfect, schools careers guidance has improved a lot in recent years, becoming more professional and personalised. However, in our interviews with adult career changers, we discovered that extending those improvements beyond schools is more challenging for three reasons.
First, because unlike school students (or indeed benefit claimants), adults are not typically institutionalised ‘captive audiences’ – to get careers advice to adults, you need to go out, find them and persuade them to participate. That explains why Ashworth has also been talking about Labour’s plans to put careers advisers in healthcare settings to reach vulnerable people that don’t engage with the Jobcentre.
Second, because past poor experience of careers guidance casts a long shadow. If you’re above a certain age, the chances are that the mere mention of careers advisors causes you to roll your eyes a little, probably because you’re thinking of an uninspiring encounter you had at school. That doesn’t reflect the modern reality of careers support, but people will take quite a bit of convincing.
Third, because of stigma. Formal careers advice is easily dismissed by older people as the preserve of children or the unemployed – not for ‘people like them’.
Ashworth’s Jobcentre proposal risks reinforcing that stigma. Many of those he wants to attract back into employment are likely to be turned off by Jobcentres’ associations with unemployment and benefits. Challenging those perceptions and changing the culture and role of Jobcentres to a more positive and supportive one is part of Ashworth’s broader political project. Jobcentres might be part of the solution in the long run – it is surely right to bring them into this discussion – but more immediate solutions require different tools.
In fact, there is another organisation that exists to address exactly the problem Ashworth has identified. The National Careers Service is meant to be the authoritative, government-assured source of information, advice and guidance for over 18s. Those that find their way to the NCS generally have a positive experience, though it seems to be less well geared towards the needs of older and more educationally-qualified users. Yet it has relatively poor awareness – hardly any of the career changers we spoke to had heard of it.
Getting older people, particularly those that have left the labour force, to engage more with careers guidance is a laudable and sensible objective. It is also an extremely difficult one, and trying to do it through Jobcentres might make the task tougher still. Labour might be better off investing in the existing National Careers Service, and strengthening its brand – using it as the vehicle to find older workers roles rewarding and flexible enough to convince them it is worth their while to come back.