A tough time for the baby boomers as reality looms large

LATE SHIFT; THE DEATH OF RETIREMENT by Richard Tomlinson Methuen, £18.99 Despite changes to the law, an author finds many over-50s are stuck without work but not able to retire, writes Bridget Galton AS BRITAIN S first age discrimination law comes


by Richard Tomlinson

Methuen, £18.99

Despite changes to the law, an author finds many over-50s are stuck without work but not able to retire, writes Bridget Galton

AS BRITAIN'S first age discrimination law comes into force, business journalist Richard Tomlinson has visited the boardrooms and shop floors of one English town to see how the UK's ageing workers are faring in the current climate.

The Belsize Park author uncovered a gulf between employees increasingly forced to work longer, and managements who peg the over-50s as a human resources headache.

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Faced with pension shortfalls and prejudice, the bewildered baby boom generation has been forced to adjust its expectations of employment and retirement.

"I am quite close to the generation over the age of 50 who are worrying about their pensions," says the 48-year-old. "It definitely concerns me. I have realised my own pension is completely inadequate to see me through retirement in my 60s. It was that personal aspect - thinking much more about the future and realising I should have been doing it 10 years sooner - that inspired me to write the book."

While working as a European business journalist in the early 2000s, he realised the senior executives he interviewed were in the 30-40 age bracket, but none in their late 50s. "I met various people who seemed to have had their careers blocked or frustrated and who felt they had been the victim of misconceptions about what people in their late 50s were capable of."

Tomlinson realised the new law would not change the in-built prejudice of the labour market.

"Looking at the mountain of literature that comes out of government think tanks, there is a lot of top-down thinking but very little reporting about how the law was going to play out in the workplace and how this was impacting on real people in real work places."

So Tomlinson set off to Reading to interview 130 baby boomers about their jobs and careers.

He found few human resources departments had adjusted to cope with the law - many older people were denied training for new skills so they could extend their career.

"Companies say, 'What's the point of training someone in their early 50s when we are not going to get much of their time? It's much better to invest in people in their 20s and 30s.'"

Some employees had recognised they had to sell themselves even harder, or turn themselves into one-person self-employed consultancies; using their saleable expertise to work on beyond the age where a company might employ them.

Depressingly, others were long-term unemployed and had neither the skills, aptitude, or self-confidence to make themselves more employable.

"The law says you can't discriminate on grounds of age before 65 but there are ways that companies get round this, reasons they invent for getting rid of someone. I encountered one executive at a printing company who had an awful battle persuading them to let him work on after 65. If you are locked inside a company you have to do battle with that particular human resources culture.

"It gets progressively harder the further down the skills ladder you go. For older blue collar manual workers you have the 'Tesco option', to work in low paid jobs in the retail sector, like shelf stacking. It's not because supermarkets love older people. It's because they are very handy and willing to work flexible hours."

Tomlinson also came across several women who were caring for sick or infirm relatives.

"Women over 50 get a very raw deal. They belong to a generation where they were often discriminated against in the workplace, often not expected to get the best education. The statistics are very frightening about how many now have domestic caring responsibilities for ailing relatives."

Summing up, Tomlinson predicts a "very messy" transitional period as we adjust to the modern labour market.

"What has changed in the baby boom generation's working life is there used to be a reasonable expectation that even if they lost a job, they would find another one. Up to now the public sector has been cushioned against all of this - but that's not going to continue.

"We have a pensions crisis because the numbers don't add up demographically and the average life span has increased dramatically. Sadly, the very people who need to make better provision are least equipped to do so.

"People have to realise they must work full-time until they are pushing 70. This is a really awkward, painful transition for the baby boomers brought up in a world where there were assumptions about pension provision that turned out to be false. But they didn't have enough children themselves to create the structure that was able to support them in their retirement.