At the Jobcentre in Epsom, Surrey, you can hardly hear a peep as 57-year-old Leslie Friend embarks upon his daily search for work.
Cool colours and wooden floors contribute to an air of calm - affluence, even - and perhaps you would expect nothing less at the leafy heart of the stockbroker belt.
There are four computers on upright plinths similar to the self check-in desks at major airports, and Leslie heads for one of these as if on automatic pilot.
The screen kicks into life and to me, a novice at this game, things look promising. According to the Jobcentre programme, there are 1,014 jobs up for grabs, including more than 100 ‘exact matches’.
As Leslie hasn’t punched any information into the computer, we are a little unsure of what exactly is matching, but we plough on regardless, concentrating on the ‘local’ option.
Here we find a job for a heating services engineer on the national minimum wage. That is £46.40 for an eight-hour day, or £232 a week. But, in spite of this position being listed as ‘local’, it is actually based in west Norfolk.
That’s more than 140 miles away from Leslie’s home in Ashtead, which he shares with his partner Cat.
‘That isn’t unusual,’ sighs Leslie. ‘Here’s one for a labourer in West Sussex and another for a drainage engineer in the Midlands.’
Add to these the positions for which he isn’t qualified and the others offering 15 hours a week in areas that would take him ten hours a week to travel to and from (not to mention the expense) and my original optimism for Leslie begins to wane.
And this is just my first day. Leslie, a former administrative worker with more than 30 years’ experience, has been looking for a job since April 2008. During that time he has applied for more than 600 vacancies, been invited to just three interviews and had no offers of work whatsoever.
He is one of a growing number of over-50s who lost their jobs during the recession and fear they may never work again.
According to figures released last week, there are 389,000 over-50s out of work compared with 230,000 two years ago.
Of those, the number out of work for more than a year has increased by 52.4 per cent in the past 12 months alone, while the figure for those unemployed for more than two years has gone up by 23.9 per cent.
Moreover, while the younger unemployed are being given help to get into work, precious little is being done for the over-50s. And people like Leslie would argue this represents a vast national resource in talent, knowledge and experience that is going to waste.
Leslie had little choice but to accept redundancy when the printing plant where he was working relocated from London to Hertfordshire.
‘I was living in Kent at the time and I tried travelling to the new site, but each time the round trip took me four hours,’ he says. ‘But I’m flexible and experienced and I thought I’d get a job closer to home without too much trouble.
‘I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was firing off applications every day, but hardly ever received even an acknowledgement, let alone an interview. The three times I did get an interview, I got the feeling that they wanted someone younger. It’s soul destroying.’
According to The Age and Employment Network, a not-for-profit organisation linked to Age UK (formerly Age Concern), over-50s applying for jobs often suffer age discrimination - which was supposed to have been outlawed in October 2006.
Recently, it completed a report, The Impact of the Recession on Older Workers, which concluded: ‘New figures reveal that older workers are finding it harder than any other age group to get back into work after being made redundant, with fewer than one in five of over-50s finding employment within three months, compared to more than 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds.
‘Once they have fallen off the job ladder, it is proving extremely difficult for men to get back on it. This group is becoming trapped in a spiral of unemployment — and the longer they stay out of work, the worse it gets.’
None of this is news to Michael Weston. Michael was made redundant from his job as company secretary of a multi-national marine paint manufacturer three years ago at the age of 59. An ebullient and intelligent former solicitor, he wasn’t too worried
Energetic and naturally likeable, Michael figured his experiences in jetting around the world solving problems and expanding the business would stand him in good stead. After all, he had been doing it for 23 years.
‘I had been on a very good salary with perks that included a pension and a car,’ he says. ‘I had excellent experience as European company secretary and was sure I would find something fairly quickly. I began applying for other company secretaryposition, then posts as contract manager, then general admin positions.
‘I applied for about 50 jobs for which I was eminently qualified, but I got only one interview and I didn’t get that job.
‘Then I began applying for deputy company secretary jobs, but you can imagine how a 40-year-old company secretary might be a bit wary of employing someone older and more experienced than him.
‘I’m a realist and so I began lowering my expectations, but it was depressing when I was turned down for a job as a shelf-stacker at Tesco’s. The letter said: ‘We have no positions available at the moment.” ’
I admire Michael’s candour. Few people would have the courage to publicly chronicle their downfall, but he is big enough to use his experiences to highlight the problem.
‘Fortunately I have a very supportive wife, Francesca, and three children who wouldn’t let me wallow,’ he says. ‘The seven years of work that would have taken me to retirement have been taken away from me and they would have made a considerable
impact on the level of pension I could have expected. I was going to be comfortably off. But now it will be a struggle unless I find work soon.’
During my sojourn into the world of the mature unemployed, I met many decent, committed men like Michael Weston and Leslie Friend who simply can’t find the work that would give them their pride back.
There was Steve Wood, a 54-year-old IT specialist from Portsmouth who, not so long ago, was a world authority on computer components.
Now he is applying for junior webpage designer jobs at £15,000 a year — and not getting them.
There was another computer specialist from the South Coast called Chris who almost went bankrupt after applying for hundreds of jobs he failed to land.
There was a London solicitor - one of hundreds in the capital - whose level ofexperience would normally have led to a partnership; instead she was working in factories and doing temping jobs.
Then there was the 58-year-old television producer who had won awards for his work in Africa, but who was now giving up hope of ever working in the industry again.
In fact, pick any profession and you will find hundreds and hundreds of over-50s who have been made redundant from it, but can’t get back in. This is the hidden toll of the recession.
According to the TUC, many over-50s who are out of work simply slip off the radar - which means there are thousands more than official figures suggest. If their partner is working, they are entitled to £64 a week in Jobseekers’ Allowance for six months - but then nothing, so they do not appear in any national statistics.
Richard Exell, the TUC’s labour market senior policy officer, says: ‘Our research suggests many people who have been edged into taking redundancy or early retirement want to work, but after a while - when they haven’t found a job - they prefer
to tell themselves, and others, they are in retirement.
'Psychologically, it sounds better. But once they have taken that step, it is as if they have vanished. On the one hand, the Government is saying it wants to push back the age of retirement, but on the other we have huge numbers of 50-plus workers who are economically inactive.’
The economist Professor Richard Jackman has written extensively about employment issues at the London School of Economics.
'In the past, allowing large numbers of people to retire early used to be seen as a good way of reducing unemployment figures and, to a large extent, the country could afford it,' he tells me.
'However, the new situation is that over the next few years there is going to be increasing pressure on people to work longer because of ageing demographics and a pensions explosion. Quite simply, we need a new approach to the unemployed over-50s.'
So, what can be done? First, attitudes to older workers need to change. According to Chris Ball, chief executive of The Age and Employment Network, ageism is rife.
'Fifty-plus jobseekers often describe getting letters of rejection that say they are "too experienced for the position" or that they are "too big for the job",' he says.
'That is nonsense. How can you be too experienced? This is simply code for "you are too old." '
Second, the mature unemployed need targeted help in getting back to work. Under proposals from Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a confusing plethora of welfare to work programmes are being scrapped and replaced with one
scheme called the Work Programme.
Under this, private companies will be paid each time they find a job for an unemployed person.
Reed in Partnership is one of the companies that participated in previous schemes and is expected to take part in the new one. Rhodri Thomas, its chief spokesman, said in recent years the firm has been receiving an average of around £2,000 to £2,500 for each person for whom it found work (and who stayed in employment for at least six months).
The problem is, while he expects the new scheme to offer greater rewards to agencies to get certain groups of people into work, such as the longer-term unemployed, disabled people or those with drug dependency problems, mature workers have been left on the sidelines.
'We would like the Government to make the over-50s such a priority group,' he says.
In the meantime, Leslie Friend has an interview for an admin job in the NHS next week. And Michael Weston is hoping to take up a voluntary job as a driver taking people to and from hospital appointments.
'I won't get any money for it, but it will feel good to be helping someone,' he smiles. 'It will get me out of the house and meeting people again. And of all the things I miss about work, it isn't the money or the big car, it's the people. And, of course, the feeling of doing something useful.'
Article from The Daily Mail