Robin Swann MLA, Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and his party’s candidate for Westminster for North Antrim has said more value must be given to older people in the community and has challenged the Stormont Executive “to ensure that older people can remain in the workforce for as long as they are able”.
Mr Swann issued his challenge to the Executive after meeting with the Commissioner for Older People Claire Keatinge to discuss the report on “Valuing an Ageing Workforce.”
Mr Swann said his constituency had one of the highest proportions of older people of the 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland.
He said: “We must recognize the vast experience and expertise which our older people can give to the community and especially to the workforce. We must never allow the ageist stereotype to be created that these most valuable citizens are merely yesterday’s men and women.”
During the meeting, Mr Swann posed a series of questions to the Commissioner: “I suppose we are guilty of having concentrated quite a lot on the NEET category to the extent that we had an inquiry.
“Are we, then, failing older people in your opinion? Is it because there is a handy acronym that they are further up the agenda, or is there in your opinion a true political will to do something?” asked Assemblyman Swann.
Responding to Mr Swann’s queries, Ms Keatinge noted: “I understand why there has been a drive to focus on the challenge of youth unemployment and on the need for training and education for young people - I understand that.
“My remit is specifically for older people. They are being undermined and failed in the support that they and employers need to retain them in the workforce. There is ingrained ageism in the system. The apprenticeships example is a very sharp and obvious one.
“Generally, if you listen to employers, they are often reluctant to invest for the longer term in older workers. They can also display quite ageist attitudes.
“However, when employers take the time to pay attention to the actual academic and business evidence and when they listen to business organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Business in the Community, they have a different view.
“They support age-diverse workforces and recognise the evidence that the economy can grow only if older workers are encouraged to remain in the workforce.
“There is a failure at this point to recognise the contribution that older people can and do make and to take active steps to promote their retention and recruitment,” said Ms Keatinge.
Assemblyman Swann then noted: “On training for older people who want to re-enter the workforce or progress in it, one of the concerns that the Committee raised about the draft DEL budget was the loss of the 16,000 college places.
“You indicated strongly that there should be opportunities for lifelong learning for older people. Do you think that older people will be more adversely affected by that reduction in numbers than young people?” Mr Swann asked.
Ms Keatinge responded: “If you look at the increase in the proportion of the population that is going to be over 65, it is inevitable that, when there is a reduction, it will significantly impact on older people.
“The significant issue with employment at the moment is the very prevalent ageist attitude that it is not worth training or retraining older people. It is felt that they will not want to learn or retrain or that they will not be able to understand new technology. That is simply wrong.
“That attitude is desperately prevalent in the education and learning sector, employers and the population as a whole.
“It suggests that older people cannot, will not and do not desire to train, retrain, take up employment or consider their options. The evidence is against them, and policy is lagging behind the evidence,” Ms Keatinge told Assemblyman Swann.