Employers and Government need to think urgently about the impact of our ageing population on work and the public sector.
In a world dominated by Brexit, there is not much other news and not much of any concrete nature in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement – and nothing for, for instance, schools or nurseries except a pledge that austerity might possibly be over if Brexit is resolved.
One piece of alternative news this week, however, came from the Centre for Ageing Better’s report on The State of Ageing. It called for a radical rethink about work, health and housing to ensure the next generation of older people have a good quality of life as people live longer. The number of people aged 65 and over is set to grow by more than 40% in just two decades, reaching over 17 million by 2036.
In its response to the Spring Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies also called for an urgent review of public spending in light of long term demographic changes. It said that if total spending doesn’t rise as a fraction of national income “we are now perhaps only 20 years from the moment when half of all state spending goes on just health, pensions and social care”. It was 30% at the turn of the century.
One implication of these changes is that the number of people caring for older relatives on a long-term basis will rise and, unless public funding increases, many of these may be faced with having to drop out of the workforce to do so.
A recent Department of Health and Social Care report forecast that, in the worst case Brexit scenario, there could be a shortage of 6,000 doctors, 12,000 nurses and 28,000 care staff within five years which, it predicted, would mean many women quitting their jobs to look after elderly relatives.
The report caused a minor Twitter storm as people complained about the assumption that women would do the caring, which is fair enough. But the hard cold reality is that it will probably be women who are more affected by any care crisis. In the US, women are much more likely than men to drop out of the workforce due to elder care responsibilities.
In the UK, according to the Carers Trust, there are 4.27 million carers of working age, 57% of whom are women. Women carers are 10% more likely not to work than male carers – 62% are employed compared to 72% of male carers, but over half of those who are not working say that they want to do so.
So what can be done to prevent dropout? A recent event hosted by IBM drew attention to the need for employers to take a step back and consider the life cycle pressures on their employees so they can plan ahead. It specified the need for carers leave, carers networks and flexible working.
Caroline Waters, Vice President of Carers UK, said caring should be normalised at work and spoke of her own experience of being a caregiver. “I could see tomorrow, but I couldn’t see 30 more tomorrows,” she said.
Speakers included caregivers who showed how vital flexible working and an understanding employer were to keeping them in the workforce. One woman spoke about caring for her father who has vascular dementia. She works from home which means she can get to her father quickly if she needs to. He sometimes goes missing and a tracker helps her to locate him.
That flexibility means the woman’s employer was able to retain her skills. Issues around caring responsibilities are closely linked to the skills challenge facing the UK and other ageing populations.
Economically, employers need to retain skilled workers – or compete with others to bring in those skills – and countries need as many adults to work as possible to bring in tax revenue to pay for public services.
This is the future and employers and Government need to plan for it now. Those who plan ahead will be more likely to weather the changes.