Category Archives: Employment

Working on into old age

None of us can claim to be experts on any subject (although many do). However, I do claim that I know enough about working on into old age to be able to make a few comments from experience. After all, I have yet properly to retire at 75 although I do take things rather more gently than I did when I was younger.

This all started when Dr Alf posted a blog.  It is called “Older, healthier and working: Britons say no to retirement.”  Here is an extract:

There are still lots of taboos and sensitivities about older people but it’s necessary to face up to the economic and social realities.
The percentage of the older “indigenous population” in many countries will grow alarmingly over coming decades. Apart from shifting the older people overseas, like Germany for example, the only way that the balance of younger people will be preserved will be with continued large scale immigration.
Because of UK Government policy under the previous Labour Government, many retiring peoples’ pension pots are much smaller than envisioned. More widely, Western governments have struggled with the political complexities of adjusting pension policies to reflect the changing domographics.
So older people, will typically have smaller savings and pensions, so they are faced with real decisions:
  • Turn to their family?
  • Turn to the state?
  • Turn to themselves?
Of course, as the article describes, there are many older people who will be delighted to continue working, given the chance, but this fails to address the vast majority. Surely, the vast majority will be not have the skills, competence, stamina, and health to continue working?
Let me turn this around to an open question:
How should Government policy change to give older people a greater chance of working in their later years, addressing issues of skills, competence, stamina and health?

The first thing to say is that “older people” is too vague.  People (of all ages) vary enormously from the very willing and fully able to those who would rather not (thank you very much) and those who would love to but just can’t. Thus we have two variable to consider – and every “older person” sits in a place which may not be unique but is pretty much their own.

So how can a government deal with this degree of variation? Well, it can’t. I hope you agree with that statement – especially those of you who already know that I have serious doubts about government being able properly to deal with anything very much. However, it can remove a few of the obstacles and maybe add in a few incentives. Here are the few things that I would suggest could be done.

  • Remove NI contributions (employee and employer) on all employees over retirement age
  • Double the tax threshold for people who are over retirement age and who work for twelve or more hours per week but continue to include their state pensions into their taxable income.
  • ensure that employers have the right to lay off all those over retirement age without giving any reason but with a minimum of either four week’s notice or a payment equal to the amount earned in the previous four week period.

Before raising your hands in horror, think of the advantages. This will encourage employers to take on old people and encourage old people to work, if only part time. Isn’t that the object of the exercise?

It does nothing for those who are over retirement age but self-employed (as I am) but then, we don’t need to be encouraged. We just get on with it.

The Riots – two years on

There is an excellent column in today’s Times written by Daniel Finklestein. The subject is basically “the cause of the riots 2 years ago”. The conclusion – and this is why I found the column to be excellent – is that we still just don’t know and we really do need to know. 

It is good to read about uncertainty. It is a state of mind that leaves one open to new ideas, that encourages people to make experiments (knowing that some will fail) and stops people becoming jobsworths or unable/unwilling to admit to any sort of failure.

Highlighted, and rightly so, is the inability of the police to accept any blame for their part in the appalling relations between them and the black populations in places such as Tottenham. What is so very dangerous is that we see trust between the public and the police at an all time low and that is bad for everyone.

This whole business of refusing to face up to making a mistake is somewhat on my mind at the moment (especially as an event which is of no great importance recently reminded me of one of the worst mistakes that I made during a lifetime of getting things wrong). It is at the back of the problem I have been having trying to get some sense out of either the elected representatives to or the officers of the South Hams District Council over the matter of a mistake that someone has made which has resulted in the problems I outlines in earlier recent blogs. I had assumed that having had this mistake brought to the notice of “the powers that be” the reaction would have been, “Oh, right, well what can we do to put matters right”. Not a bit of it. Rather like the police in the various matters we all think about at the moment (Hillsborough, Mark Duggan, Plebgate and so on) one hits a blank wall and the conversations go round and round pointlessly (in the hope, no doubt, that I will just give up).

If I give up about the matter of the signs on the car park ticket machines giving false information nobody will be injured or will die. If we, collectively, give up on the things that caused the riots two years ago then it is probable that some will be injured and possible that more will die. Certainly we shall be creating a society in which I, for one, would not wish to live.

This is not just about the police. There are many factors to take into consideration and the one that I think is most important is to find things for the young, of both sexes and all backgrounds, to do which enables them to hold their heads high and take some pride in themselves and their communities. Better to pay more for the care of our infrastructure and of our elderly and vulnerable than to pay to keep people out of work.

Marks and Sparks get their knickers in a twist

Not many political bloggers use their blogs to explain that they tend to live in briefs supplied by Marks and Spencer. Indeed, I hear a few voices saying, “enough already – too much information”. Stick with it, I have a serious point to make.

Confession number two: I am over-weight, not much but a bit. My waist measures just under 42 inches in the winter and rather less as summer progresses only to increase again as the weather gets colder. M & S size their briefs using letters: X Large is for those with 30 to 41 inch waists while XX Large covers those more rotund measuring from 42 to 44. No doubt you begin to see the problem. 

All briefs wear out in time – probably because of all that aggressive washing – and some of mine are now ready for retirement. So I wanted some more: ideally I wanted more of the same only, why am I surprised? – my knickers are a discontinued line. So I ordered what I thought would be the closest equivalent. These duly arrived and I sent them back with the following letter which is, I think, self-explanatory. 

Please find enclosed four pairs of trunks recently ordered and supplied as attached paperwork (copies have been kept). 

These are to replace old trunks which are nearing the end of their lives. The old style is no longer available – a 3 part set 6983 789. The size is XX Large. It seemed looking at your web site that the nearest equivalent was the 2 part set 07910227 and so these were ordered in the same size. 

Putting to one side that it is extremely irritating to have a 41½” waist when sizes come in X Large (39-41) and XX Large (42-44), what is astonishing is that the enclosed are so much larger than the ones they are to replace (see photograph). I cannot believe that the old ones have shrunk that much. 

This poses a problem: have they been wrongly labelled and I need XXL or should I have ordered XL? 

If the former, please replace with correctly labelled XXL – if the latter please replace with XL.”

This morning I received an email from M & S thanking me for being a customer and so on – and advising me that my account had been credited with a refund. Grrr. 

Now for the serious stuff. I have been talking about the need to employ more people and the fact that there are times and places when men are better than machines. This is just such a one. I assume that this is all the problem of computers driving people rather than the other way around. No doubt whoever unpacked the return parcel was forced to select one of a limited number of reasons for the return of the goods and the computer took over from then on. My guess is that two boxes were ticked: “wrong size” and “refund”. 

A person reading the letter would have dealt with this situation very differently and I am sure that many reading this would agree that the thought of having to contact “customer services” tends to send a shiver down the strongest of spines. 

We should not blame these companies: employing people to do things better is only acceptable if at the same time they more than cover their costs. In the final analysis, people are an indirect cost that hits the bottom line and should, therefore, be kept to a minimum. This, of course, impinges on the unemployment statistics. Lower the cost of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people: lower the administrative costs of employing people and you encourage employers to use more people. 

Thus there are two areas where the government could do something to help: scrap NI which is no longer a contributory insurance payment (much though politicians would have us believe otherwise) and scrap most of the employment laws leaving behind a general duty of care (which would work both ways: employers having a duty of care to their employees and employees having a duty of care to their employers). Note I say nothing against the minimum wage which should remain in force albeit perhaps with more steps. 

There is a third. Make it far far easier for people to slip into and out of unemployment benefits. Many will not take a temporary job because it is then almost impossible to get back onto benefit in a reasonable time scale. 

Yes, there would be less protection for employees – is that such a high price to pay for a more fluid employment market with less people unemployed? 

What about the loss of revenue caused by scrapping NI? Put it all on income tax: that way you begin to narrow the gap between the net income of poorest and richest (although in this context, many of the “rich” already think of themselves as “overtaxed”). 

 

More on men and machines

There are two headlines in the Guardian today which call for anybody in the business of political blogging tas does a bone to a dog. They are “Accountancy giant signs up ex-HMRC boss” and “May’s plans to tackle extremism face backlash”.

However tempting these are I have decided that both will attract a great deal of comment which I would like to read and brood upon before I add my mite (assuming that I do). So, putting temptation to one side I want to return to my theme in my last blog – the concept of a humanitarian revolution.

First I would like to pick up from the comment made by my friend Richard Curtis (which you will find under the last blog). He is, of course, quite right but . . . If you take what he says to an ultimate conclusion, I suspect that there is a real risk that this would widen the gap between those who find living in the UK society a rewarding experience and those who don’t. I know that I am walking into troubled waters – on the Times Online on this subject someone asked me what I would want to “uninvent” – and the answer is “think outside the box, that is not an option”. Clearly we would want to continue to use machines to take the drudgery out of life and, indeed, to carry out boring and repetitive work that they do better than we can do. However, there are many areas where that is not the case – and yet we still use machines.

Let’s start with something essentially easy – cleaning streets and civic spaces in urban areas. This can, and is, be dome using machines. Machines don’t do the job as well as people but the end cost is deemed to be cheaper. Here is a case where the answer to the question “can man do this instead of a machine?” must be “yes”. Do it, do it better and take pride in the result. Furthermore, bring observation and intelligence to bear and see things that need attention before they cause real trouble le (such as a drainage system that is not working properly). Some places still use people equipped with no more than a broom, shovel and barrow but others go for the machines of one sort or another.

The problem is that this is paid for by a local authority – an authority that is not really overly concerned with meeting the costs of the unemployed (although, of course, they will pick up some of them – housing benefit – and suffer from loss of rates).

Being an essentially rural animal I can only comment on the situation in the countryside. Years ago there was a lengthsman who, virtually single handed and with simple equipment, was responsible for a given length of roads and lanes. He (in those days it was always a ‘he’) was generally proud of his length and knew where all the problems would arise. I knew one who, in the autumn, would turn out in the middle of the night if it was raining especially hard in order to deal with a drain that he knew would become blocked by falling leaves. Some authorities awarded prizes for the best kept lengths and where that happened competition to win was keen. Another memory: there was to be an inspection of lengths and on one wide verge there was an area of grass that had not been cut. When the inspector arrived a very shy and embarrassed young girl approached him. It turned out she was the daughter of the lengthsman and it was her job to tell the inspector that there was a bird (I think a skylark but my memory may be at fault) nesting there and so her father had left the nest alone but, she assured the inspector earnestly, he would be cutting it down as soon as the young had left.

Could that also apply in urban areas? Perhaps one of you living in a city can provide the answer.

Could that be extended to other areas of life? Thinking outside the box: words such as ‘craftsman’ and ‘artist’ (a word derived from the Latin ars as is ‘artisan’) come to mind as does the intense satisfaction I have met with people who lay hedges, build dry stone walls, grow vegetables and so on.

Perhaps all we need to do is to change a few simple things. At the moment employing people is a costly and difficult affair – what if, instead of making it better NOT to employ if at all possible, we turned that on its head and actually provided a tax incentive to employ and reduced the burdensome regulations. Sure. If we scrapped some of the employees rights it would be hard on some people in employment. Is that too high a price to pay for others to be taken off the self and socially destructive dole queue?

Then there is self-employment. Try that if you are on benefit. Again we do everything possible to deter people when we should be doing everything we can to encourage them.

So, it’s a bit more than man versus machine but that is a good slogan so long as it is not taken too literally.

Man or machine?

Man versus machines – or should that be machines versus man? This thought comes from reading a piece in the Times Online or, more properly, the comments posted below the article. There was a thread bemoaning unemployment and seeking remedies: remedies which escaped all those writing since none of the suggestions were doable.

As usual, what people were recording were aspirations and that is a simple thing to do. Indeed, going off at a tangent for a moment, that neatly describes the UKIP policies as shown on their web site. The difficulty is the need to convert aspirations into action that will go some way towards meeting the objective without just causing a good deal of trouble and achieving nothing which, thanks in large part to the law of unintended consequences, is what tends to happen.

Back to unemployment: this is caused – obviously – by there being surplus of labour. This surplus will be caused for a number of reasons of which I suggest the one that matters most is a lack of demand for a given type of employee. Quite deliberately I am ignoring the unemployed who are quite capable of work but consider the work available to be beneath them or paid so badly that it is better to be on benefits.

Much unemployment has been thanks to the use of machines which carry out work more quickly and sometimes better than can man. The result is that our mindset tends to be, “what machines can we use to replace man?” whereas we could look at this a very different way and ask instead, “where could we use man to replace machinery?”

Taken out of context, that looks like a call to turn back the clock (and, indeed, it may come to that). However, I suggest the context is this (and please bear in mind I am talking here about the UK, not the world):

First was an agrarian revolution that completely changed the way we carried out husbandry on farms and reduced the need for farms to employ so many men.

Second was an industrial revolution which harnessed the power of steam and, later, electricity so enabling us to automate many processes. Again there was a reduction in the manpower required.

Thirdly there was (or even is) what I will call the electronic revolution which transformed almost all aspects of life and resulted in a further reduction in required manpower excaberated by the huge numbers of able and willing workers in other parts of the world.

So now we need another revolution: the humanity revolution in which we rethink everything we do. Obviously we do not want a state controlled economy (there is ample evidence that they just do not work) but we have a simple mechanism that could make all the difference. Instead of the state penalising employers for every employee they employ (through taxation and regulation) why doesn’t the state provide an incentive to employers? Done properly, this incentive would mean that there could be many situations in which using man instead of machine would be the more profitable choice.