Last week I made the tabloid headlines. I was called ‘offensive’ and ‘out of touch’ for claiming there is nothing wrong with a 65-year-old woman taking an apprenticeship. I made the point during a debate called by the SNP about the plight of those 2.6 million women – the Waspi – who are having their state pension age hiked to 66 by 2020.
I understand the Waspi’s concerns. But my comments were deliberately taken out of context and manipulated by my political opponents to create a fake news story which they then used to attack me. It attracted a lot of attention, and obscured the broader point I wanted to raise. I wanted to talk about age discrimination in the workplace and how we need to smash some outdated stereotypes about when we have to stop working.
We are, thankfully, comfortable today talking about discrimination – and there are protections in place for those who were previously discriminated against. But one area of discrimination remains stubbornly resistant to change: ageism. When combined with sexism, this makes for a toxic combination in the workplace, alienating older women who are trying to find work, retrain or upskill at the end of their careers.
I know how challenging it is to enter a new profession – I came in to politics at the age of 51 after a variety of careers. I have received those dispiriting knock-backs. I have been told, to my face, that I’m “too old” on more than one occasion. And often it has been dressed as “you’re overqualified”. I’ve also been overlooked because the highly relevant experience I had was just before a two-year career break taken for personal reasons.
But I have also worked in businesses that employ women over retirement age. I saw one 64-year-old colleague break down in tears of relief because she wouldn’t be forced out of the job she loved when she turned 65 – thanks to the Government lifting the mandatory retirement age. She felt young at heart and enjoyed her job, and her colleagues were like family to her.
Older people have so much to contribute to the workplace. They have a lifetime of experience, wisdom and skills. And many aren’t ready to stop working at retirement age. So when I heard the statement in the House of Commons by the SNP that it is an insult to any woman over the age of 65 to be offered an apprenticeship, I could not let that assertion go unquestioned. I had to challenge the stereotype.
No one is suggesting that any woman should be “forced” to do an apprenticeship. I don’t think its easy to find the right one, nor do I think it would be the right route for everyone. A lifetime of hard work in any type of job is enough for many, and thanks to our generous state pension, today’s pensioners are better off as a group than they’ve been for decades. This is absolutely as it should be.
But why make learning and re-skilling only a thing that young people can access? Why slam the door in the faces of those who are of a certain age? Retirement can come at different times for different people, and these days many of us are living longer and are keen to carry on contributing. That’s why this Government is working so hard, with the help of many businesses, to get men and women beyond over the age of 65 in to employment. Our comprehensive package of support, recruitment and retraining has worked for 1.2 million people and counting.
The world of work is changing and changing fast. And if this provides more choice for people at all stages of their lives to live fuller working lives, or make a choice to enjoy a dignified retirement, this Government will be right behind it.
This is the point I was making in the debate, and I will continue to work hard, despite the obstacles and criticism I face, to make it. Until enough of us are brave enough to stand up and challenge outdated views when we see them, they will continue to exist, and older women will continue to be discriminated against.