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The growing trend of working into later life and the importance of doing “good work” were two themes explored by one of Britain’s most recognisable female politicians at last week’s FT Women at the Top event in London.
Having been elected to parliament at the age of 50, Dame Margaret Hodge, now 74, insists she is looking forward to working well into her 80s. Speaking to an audience of 300 female leaders, she declared life to be “a marathon, not a sprint”, adding that “it doesn’t matter if you coast for a few years” because there’s plenty of time to work and plenty of work to do.
As chair of the Commons public accounts committee for five years from 2010, Dame Margaret held ministers, civil servants, public officials and business figures to account, operating with a ruthless interrogatory style that often propelled her work into the headlines. Her willingness to speak out was underlined once again this summer, when she became embroiled in a row with Jeremy Corbyn over anti-semitism in the Labour party.
Having fallen into politics “accidentally”, she has nonetheless had a prolific career in Parliament. After 20 years in local government she became the Labour MP for Barking in 1994, retaining her seat in 2010 following a challenge from Nick Griffin of the British National Party. Her roles in government included children’s minister and minister for universities.
Joining her on stage for the FT discussion was Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. Starting from the evidence that we are living longer and are physically more capable in later life, the speakers pointed to the stimulation and structure that work brings at any age, while acknowledging the challenges created by working longer.
The employment rate of women aged 50-64 is rising, but remains below that of men, at 67.5 per cent versus 76.2 per cent. This gap is partly explained by women’s role in caring for children and other family members, a point raised by Dame Margaret. She said that changing the culture and trying to “get men to be equally responsible is a really tough challenge”.
Another is the challenge of providing for a comfortable retirement. Gold-plated final-salary pension plans are disappearing as costs rise for companies. Employee benefits advice provider JLT found that only 11 FTSE 250 companies offered defined benefit pension plans to a significant number of employees. Furthermore, the Women and Equalities Committee found the gender pay gap to be particularly pronounced for women over 40, meaning that they earn less and subsequently have smaller pensions, a further challenge of working into later life.
But while these financial pressures might push people to work later in life, the panel was clear on the importance of “good work”, with autonomy, flexibility, interesting work and good relationships being key to success.
Collette Altaparmakova, a trainee solicitor at Linklaters, said that after completing her PhD in cancer research from the University of Cambridge, she took 10 years out of her career to raise her four children. But now — in a story previously related in the FT’s Career Changers series — she was “looking forward to having a long career”, adding that women were no longer expected to sacrifice the rest of their lifetime’s work for their children. Here, however, she acknowledged she was fortunate: her husband’s career allowed her to step back from work and then to obtain a training contract at a top law firm after a long time out of the labour market. Not everyone will have such an option, she said.
Also on the panel was Claudine Adeyemi, a lawyer at Mishcon de Reya, who spoke about the changing face of work and having a “portfolio of work”. Having taken a mid-career sabbatical to focus on social entrepreneurship in the areas of diversity and social mobility, Ms Adeyemi urged women to embrace a career change: for her, it had expanded her network and allowed her to discover different areas of interest.
Touching on society’s “cult of youth” and the common practice of promoting younger women, the speakers recognised the unspoken barriers that can confront older women in the workplace. Age discrimination may be against the law, they said, but it is still practised, often subconsciously. More than two-fifths of people think age discrimination towards those over 55 is “widespread”, according to research from the government office for science.
Dame Margaret said she found working alongside younger people “exhilarating” as it kept her “thinking and energetic and vibrant”. But she hoped, too, that her younger peers would have something to gain from learning about her experiences.
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