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France struggles to keep older workers in the labour market

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After Sophie de la Roche lost her senior job in procurement for hotel group Accor at the age of 54, the French executive sent out more than 400 CVs over two and half years before landing another role.

As an older worker, she said, “my impression was that my candidacy was not even really being considered”. She eventually joined a network for senior executives and found a post at an industry trade group. “I am convinced it helped that the hiring manager was also older,” she said.

The issue of older employees has come to a head once more in France as President Emmanuel Macron prepares a draft law to raise the minimum retirement age to 65 from 62, an unpopular proposal that unions have vowed to fight.

In a television interview earlier this month, he appealed to citizens’ sense of solidarity and argued that only by people working “a bit longer” could France ensure the financial viability of its pension system as people lived longer. Paris is also under pressure from Brussels to improve its public finances.

However, many older jobseekers say they want to work but companies are unwilling to hire them or often ease them out through redundancies.

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France is relatively poor at keeping older people in the workforce. Its employment rate for 55 to 64-year-olds is 56 per cent, compared with a 59 per cent average in EU countries and 61 per cent across the OECD. Only about half are still working when they reach 62.

The state pension system, which relies on current workers funding retiree benefits, will have a slight budget surplus this year, according to government estimates. But deficits are forecast for coming decades as the number of workers per retiree falls from 2.1 in 2000 to 1.7 in 2020 and a projected 1.2 by 2070.

Addressing the challenges faced by older workers will be an important factor in whether Macron succeeds.

Prime minister Élisabeth Borne will lay out the government’s plans in January, and has hinted at two options: raising the minimum retirement age to 65, or to 64 but lengthening the time people must work for a full pension. Securing passage through parliament may prove challenging given Macron’s centrist alliance has lost its majority, so the government may resort to a constitutional provision that allows it to be passed by decree.

Polls show about 70 per cent of people in France oppose raising the retirement age. Macron’s last attempt to reform pensions in 2020, was abandoned in the face of street protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Labour unions warn that without a strategy to help older workers find and keep jobs, raising the retirement age will lead to more people claiming unemployment and other benefits.

“Raising the retirement age will lead more older people to stay in the workforce longer but it won’t solve the problems for those who are out of work,” said Monique Lubin, a senator from the Socialist party who co-wrote a 2019 Senate report on the issues facing older workers. “Employers already see 55-year-olds as unattractive candidates, so it will be even more difficult for jobseekers aged 60 or 61.”

The report cites a range of factors that make it difficult for such workers to find employment in France, including age discrimination and the perception that their skills are out of date or that they command higher wages than younger staff.

The French employers’ federation Medef, which supports raising the retirement age, disputes the argument that companies are to blame for seniors leaving the workforce early and has lobbied against the idea of legally binding quotas for older workers.

France’s labour force participation rate is similar to other OECD countries until the age of 60, when it drops off steeply to the fifth-lowest among the organisation’s 38 members, according to OECD data.

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The average age at which people leave the labour market is 60.4 for men and 60.9 for women, compared with the EU average of 62.6 for men and 61.9 for women and the OECD average of 63.8 for men and 62.4 for women.

French officials say raising the retirement age is their most powerful policy tool to spur change, pointing to a gradual rise in employment among older people after it was pushed from 60 to 62 in 2010.

Some also argue privately that France’s generous welfare system enables older people not to work and shapes cultural norms under which many see working past a certain age as negative. French workers who lose their jobs when they are over 53 are entitled to unemployment benefits for up to three years, compared with up to two for others. Many use unemployment benefits and then other programmes to bridge the gap until they can claim the state pension.

Former journalist Marie Marques
Former journalist Marie Marques: ‘Employers . . . are not interested in benefiting from the experiences of older people’

After becoming unemployed about 10 years ago, Marie Marques, a 60-year-old former journalist, received unemployment benefits until they ran out and then claimed another jobseekers’ allowance. She has since founded a charity, interned at a publisher and worked as an extra on television productions, but has not found full-time work.

“Employers . . . are not interested in benefiting from the experiences of older people,” she said. “Ours is a society that values youth above all.”

On the advice of the government’s employment agency, she trained to become a proofreader, only to find there were few job opportunities because of automation.

France must improve training for older workers but also needs policies to influence employers, said Shruti Singh, an expert on ageing and employment, at the OECD.

“France has invested a lot in training in recent years but it’s not effective enough,” she said. “It probably also needs financial incentives for companies to keep older people in employment, much as it subsidises apprenticeships for young workers.” 

But Lubin said previous policy attempts to coax employers into retaining older workers had failed and that the government should consider taking a harder line, with penalties for those that culled such staff. “We’ve tried the carrot,” she added. “It’s time for the stick.”

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