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The International Journal of Human Resource
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Work–life balance and older workers: employees'
perspectives on retirement transitions following
Jean Gardiner , Mark Stuart , Chris Forde , Ian Greenwood , Robert MacKenzie & Rob Perrett
Published online: 12 Mar 2007.
To cite this article: Jean Gardiner , Mark Stuart , Chris Forde , Ian Greenwood , Robert MacKenzie & Rob Perrett (2007)
Work–life balance and older workers: employees' perspectives on retirement transitions following redundancy, The
International Journal of Human Resource Management, 18:3, 476-489
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Worklife balance and older workers:
employees’ perspectives on retirement
transitions following redundancy
Jean Gardiner, Mark Stuart, Chris Forde, Ian Greenwood,
Robert MacKenzie and Rob Perrett
Keywords Age; individualization; multi-activity; redundancy; retirement.
Discussions around worklife balance (WLB) usually focus on contexts in which paid
work circumscribes other life activities. This paper addresses WLB balance issues raised
by the cessation of paid work following redundancy. Most of the literature and policy
initiatives related to WLB are focused on employees who are parents of young children.
Examinations of other phases in the life-course through a WLB lens, such as the
transition to retirement, are rare (Yeandle, 2005). Tensions and mutual dependencies
between paid work and non-work activities have to be managed, not just on a daily,
weekly, yearly basis but over a working life-time of different phases, implying that
research on WLB should be diachronic as well as synchronic. In particular, ‘biographical
passages’ (Beck, 2000: 139) involving changes in the relationship between work and
non-work life, represent a fruitful and underdeveloped field for research in this area. Such
biographical passages would include different phases of parenting and care-giving, and
labour market transitions such as redundancy and retirement. Moen and Sweet (2004)
have argued for a life-course perspective on ‘work family’ and a reframing towards
occupational and family careers that takes account of the interplay between social
structures, historical changes and individual biographies.
Recent research on transitions from full-time work among people over 50 in the UK
suggests that nearly as many people leaving full-time jobs between 50 and state pension
age go into part-time, temporary or self-employed work as retire directly (Lissenburgh
and Smeaton, 2003). People in this age group actively seek a balance between work and
The International Journal of Human Resource Management
ISSN 0958-5192 print/ISSN 1466-4399 online q2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09585190601167904
Jean Gardiner, Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK (tel: þ44
(0) 113 3433218;; Mark Stuart, Leeds University Business School,
University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK (tel: þ44 (0) 113 3436851;
Chris Forde,Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK(tel: þ44 (0)
113 3432619;; Ian Greenwood, Leeds University Business School,
University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK (tel: þ44 (0) 113 3434517;;
Robert MacKenzie, Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK (tel:
þ44 (0) 113 3434518;; Rob Perrett, Bradford University School of
Management, University of Bradford, Emm Lane, Bradford, BD9 4JL,UK (tel: þ44 (0) 1274 234367;
Int. J. of Human Resource Management 18:3 March 2007 476 489
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other aspects of their lives including family care, voluntary work and educational
pursuits (Barnes et al., 2002). There is a need for government and employers to widen
their concept of WLB beyond families with young children (Hirsch, 2003: 5; Loretto
et al., 2005).
Building on research on transitions to retirement and on the future of work and
welfare, this paper examines the experience of redundancy among workers from five
Welsh steel plants in 20013, focusing on individual men over 50 who were eligible to
draw their occupational pension. It addresses two questions. What was the
relationship between individual choice and organizational constraint in the redundancy
experience for these men? How did these men experience and manage the changing
relationship between paid work and life outside work following redundancy?
Transitions to retirement
The concept of retirement is primarily a product of the twentieth century, and closely
linked to the rise of the welfare state and the emergence of pension systems in the post-
Second World War period (Phillipson, 1982). Only then did it become possible for men
and single women without wealth to end their working lives at a set age, with access to
some financial security through a state pension. For married women who were full-time
housewives or who combined paid work with family care, and who were not eligible to
receive a pension in their own right, retirement was always less clearly defined.
Retirement is, therefore, a historically and culturally constructed concept, linked to what
Moen and Sweet (2004: 212) refer to as the standardized ‘lock-step’ male career path
(full-time education, then continuous full-time employment, then the continuous full-
time ‘leisure’ of retirement). While initially an institutionally defined event, retirement
is now more likely to be experienced and perceived as a process, occurring over
a protracted period of time (Vickerstaff and Cox, 2005: 82). Moreover access to
retirement income can no longer be equated with withdrawal from economic activity.
There is a growing disconnection and plurality in the ages at which people access their
pension and exit from the labour market.
Working life has contracted at both ends, with more years in full-time education and
earlier retirement. Since labour force participation rates for women have also increased,
there has been a marked concentration and intensification of economic activity for
those in their middle years, hence, not surprisingly, greater attention to WLB issues
for those age groups than for others. Within the OECD countries, a typical man was
employed for only half his life by 1995, or 38 out of 76 years (Guillemard, 2001: 234).
In the 1980s and early 1990s, reduced economic activity rates for older age groups,
referred to as ‘early exit’ strategies, were encouraged in most European countries in
order to respond to mass unemployment and industrial restructuring. Early
retirement was seen as an individual right and in some countries ‘solidarity between
generations’ was interpreted as a recognition that older workers should step aside to
make room for younger workers (de Vroom, 2004a: 10).
From the mid 1990s, awareness that early exit was occurring against the backdrop of
an ageing population led to growing policy concerns, primarily around the financial
viability of pension funds and labour shortages (PIU, 2000), but also around social
exclusion and age discrimination (de Vroom, 2004a: 8). Hence, EU policy shifted
from early exit strategies to retention and reintegration of older workers (Mirabile, 2004).
A paradigm shift has also occurred with ‘incentives’, ‘disincentives’ and ‘individual
choices’ replacing ‘social rights’ and ‘collective arrangements’ for retirement (de
Vroom, 2004b). As Mann (2005) argues, recent UK pensions’ policy, for example DWP
Gardiner et al.:Worklife balance and older workers 477
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(2004), illustrates this shift away from perceiving the individual as a ‘passive welfare
recipient’ and towards the concept of the ‘active consumer citizen’ and ‘lifestyle
manager’, as articulated by Giddens (1998). In some EU countries, for example, the
Netherlands, human resource management strategies are moving away from standardized
collective trajectories for older workers towards flexible, individualized plans (de
Vroom, 2004b: 146). However, in the UK, individual employees’ choice with respect to
exit from work is constrained by considerable managerial discretion to determine the
timing and manner of that exit (Vickerstaff et al., 2004).
The transformation and pluralization of the transition from work to retirement has
been characterized as a process of individualization, where individual agency is
enhanced relative to structural and normative constraints and individuals are required to
reflexively construct their own biographies (Beck, 1992). While some commentators
have interpreted individualization as ‘deinstitutionalization’ (Guillemard and Argoud,
2004: 177) or ‘deregulation’ (de Vroom et al., 2004: 4) others have emphasized the
institutionalized nature of individualization (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002).
Empirical research on retirement transitions suggests that individualization, in the
sense of active planning, is premised on certain types of institutional arrangements and
not a generalized trend. In the UK there is little evidence of planning by individuals for
retirement (Boaz et al., 1999). On the other hand, the gradual retirement pathway in
Finland has been interpreted as an example of ‘a post-modern status passage’ (Heinz,
1996: 52) in which ‘individuals become actively involved in negotiating their life course
with social networks and institutional gatekeepers’ (Gould and Saurama, 2004: 87).
Here, active ‘lifestyle management’ is facilitated by high life-time earnings and flexible
pension entitlements. However, Gould and Saurama (2004: 89) argue that, even in
Finland, diminishing choice in the organization of the end of working life has
accompanied increased individual responsibility for life-course design. And, where early
exit is the only realistic option available to older employees, they may interpret this as a
choice rather than a compulsion in order to retain some sense of personal control over
their lives (Gould and Saurama, 2004: 86).
In the UK, Vickerstaff and Cox (2005: 89) identified three groups with different
orientations towards retirement, the ‘happy and keen to retire’, the ‘deniers’ who ‘shared
a fear of giving up work and losing the social contacts and routine associated with it’, and
those who had been ‘blown off course’ by circumstance such as changes in disability
status or organizational policies. They concluded that transitions to retirement could be
interpreted as a process of structured individualization. The fragmentation of the
retirement experience had resulted in greater choice for some individuals to construct a
post-work identity but also polarization of opportunities and outcomes related to pension
and gender inequalities.
Before investigating the relationship between individual choice and organizational
constraint in the redundancy experience of men over 50, we explore one diachronic
perspective on WLB that has emerged from the literature on the future of work and
welfare systems, namely Beck’s concept of multi-activity.
WLB or multi-active lives?
For Beck (2000: 7), finding ‘a creative balance between paid work and “the rest”(!) of
life’ is the key cultural and political issue in constructing a viable future for work, welfare
and democracy in the context of the ‘second modernity’. Beck provides a critique of the
‘value imperialism’ of paid work in modern societies (Beck, 2000: 7) in which
citizenship, security and social esteem depend more or less exclusively on paid
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employment. His proposed future scenario is a ‘Europe of civil labour’ (Beck, 2000:
121), defined as ‘a multi-activity society in which housework, family work, club work
and voluntary work are prized alongside paid work’ (Beck, 2000: 125). The notion of
self-activity, control over time and freedom from economic pressure is central to Beck’s
concept of multi-activity. He suggests that the new ‘active’ older generation of people
who are leaving or have left paid work provide an example of those more likely to
participate in civil labour (Beck, 2000: 140).
For Beck the development of a multi-activity society would depend on radical
transformation in collective and individual institutional arrangements, namely ‘the
construction of a system of basic security that has as its core the right to breaks in lifetime
employment’ (Beck, 2000: 59), such as the Danish ‘Time Out’ model which permits
employees to take up to a year out for education, child-rearing, or voluntary work with
the right to return to their jobs. Moreover, Beck is advocating ‘a right to sovereignty over
working time enshrined in collective-bargaining agreements’ (Beck, 2000: 7). Such a
contract would give employees:
a new kind of time-autonomy and a new relationship to paid labour, because it recognizes and
secures fields of activity outside work and affirms the cultural value of shaping ‘one’s own life’.
In this way, the jobs society might really be replaced by a society of multiple activities and
multiply active people. (Beck, 2000: 60)
Beck’s ‘visionary non-fiction’ (Beck, 2000: 8) is speculative and based on the
argument that paid employment is not only shrinking but also becoming more insecure in
European societies. These assumptions are contested in more empirically grounded
research (Doogan, 2001; Nolan, 2003). Moreover, the question of how companies might
be persuaded to offer time-autonomy and opportunities for time off to employees, in the
context of increasingly insecure employment, is not addressed by Beck. However his
attempt to relate social policy debates to a changing work and employment context
provides an insightful contribution to critical debate on WLB. Presenting work and life as
a duality could be seen as an example of the ‘value imperialism’ of paid work, the
product of a ‘work society’ in which paid work is perceived to be the exclusive basis for
citizenship, security and social identity. It may be more helpful to think about how
policies can be developed to support ‘multi-active’ lives, rather than WLB. This suggests
the need for empirical research into how individuals experience and manage the
relationship between paid work and life outside work over the life-course and within
specific biographical transitions. The focus in this paper is on one such transition, at one
stage of the life-course, namely older workers experiencing redundancy.
Research methods
The research project on which this paper is based explored the experiences of redundant
workers from four steel plants owned by the Anglo-Dutch Steel Corporation Corus,
located in Port Talbot, Newport, Ebbw Vale and Shotton and one owned by Allied Steel
and Wire (ASW), located in Cardiff. Between 2001 and 2003 over 3,000 jobs were lost
from the Welsh steel industry, primarily at the Corus sites, with the Ebbw Vale plant
closing down. In July 2002, the ASW plant was put into receivership, with the loss of 800
jobs. Workers were informed that they would only be entitled to statutory redundancy
payments and that their occupational pension entitlements had been lost.
The aim of the research project was to investigate the economic and social impacts of
redundancy on steel workers and their families, how they experienced this and how they
sought to cope with it and build lives ‘post’ steel. The research was sponsored by Steel
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Partnership Training (SPT), the training arm of the main steel trade union, ISTC
Community Union. SPT had established offices close to all the main steel plants affected
by redundancy and, with the aid of European Social Fund money, had appointed staff
(mostly ex-steel workers themselves) to offer advice, training opportunities and job
search facilities to redundant steel workers and their partners. SPT had established a data
set of all steel workers made redundant in Wales since 2001 and it was from this that we
derived our sample (MacKenzie et al., 2006). Semi-structured interviews, which sought
to build up individual biographies, were conducted with 125 redundant steelworkers,
93 per cent of whom were men. Individuals are anonymized in the presentation of the
The research team did not set out to look at issues of WLB but redundancy often
results in a radical change in the relationship between paid work and life outside work
and many interviewees chose to talk about the ways they had experienced and tried to
manage this changing relationship. The research uncovered a wide range of post-
redundancy responses and transitions (MacKenzie et al., 2006). The current phase of the
research is concerned with using the extensive qualitative database to develop in-depth
analysis of specific transition processes.
Most of the men gave accounts of their experiences and expectations prior to
redundancy, at the time of the redundancy and in the months following. This enabled the
process by which these men reinterpreted and reshaped their lives to be charted and
the data used here are taken from interviews that gave detailed accounts of these
processes. While the interviews were carried out at a particular point in time, usually
within a year of the redundancy, the participants’ biographical accounts provide insights
into how perceptions were changing over time. While analysis in some other studies has
been structured around typologies of responses, for example, Vickerstaff and Cox
(2005), the analysis here is concerned with comparing how interviewees reported and
interpreted past experiences and present behaviours in terms of individual agency,
normative expectations and socio-economic structures (Evans, 2002: 253).
The data analysis in this paper is structured around the following questions:
1 What was the relationship between individual choice and organizational constraint in
the redundancy experience for these men?
2 How did these men experience and manage the changing relationship between paid
work and life outside work following redundancy?
The redundancy experience: individual choice and organizational constraint
The research upon which this paper is based highlights the polarization of the early exit
experience within the same industry. The focus here is on those men who were over 50 at
the time of the redundancies and who had been employed in one of the Corus plants,
although some comparisons are drawn with those under 50 at Corus and with those
at ASW who had lost their pension. There were no women in the over 50 Corus
sample. At Corus, those experiencing redundancy over 50 were eligible to draw their
occupational pension,
as well as retirement and redundancy lump sums, which were
significant especially for those who had worked 30 or 40 years in the company. For these
individuals, not only did redundancy transform the relationship between paid work and
life outside work, but it opened up the possibility of paid work ceasing to be their
central life activity and source of self-identity. On the other hand, those who had worked
for ASW, who had lost their pension, were coming to terms with a more or less indefinite
postponement of exit from full-time employment.
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Tom (48, employed 32 years at ASW in production, now working as a full-time advice
worker) commented:
The pension is the really disappointing thing, the biggest disappointment as I’m heading to 50
and I was looking at retiring at 55. Now it might be 95. We’d always been told the pension was a
good pension, can’t do better. Suddenly there’s no pension.
Among the interviewees from Corus, some had taken ‘voluntary’ redundancy and for
others redundancy had been compulsory, for example many of the workers at Ebbw Vale
where the entire plant was closed. While the two categories were distinct in respect of the
terms offered to the redundant employee (with those in the voluntary category usually
eligible for enhanced redundancy packages), there was considerable variation in the
amount of choice the volunteers felt they were able to exercise and a continuum of
experience emerged between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ redundancy experiences.
This continuum is examined, starting with those who appeared to be exercising the
greatest choice.
A few of the men had been waiting for the opportunity to leave their jobs and had clear
plans that involved scaling down paid employment. For example, John (employed 32
years in production) wanted to take care of his elderly mother and this had prompted him
to take voluntary redundancy, even without access to his pension, at the age of 47. He was
able to reduce his income because he did not have dependant children or a mortgage and
following the redundancy he became an official carer and worked part-time in a bar.
He had been made aware of the uncertainty of his future at Corus by having to reapply for
his job twice during previous periods of restructuring, and this had contributed to his
decision to take the redundancy when the opportunity arose.
For some, life events, and especially health issues, had triggered a desire to leave the
steel industry. Colin (a management accountant for 26 years, who took voluntary
redundancy at 52) was typical of this group. Throughout his working life he had had a
number of ‘health scares’. Over the years his work had become more stressful and he
continually felt under pressure. His main concern was, therefore, his health and whether
he would be allowed to take redundancy. However even for Colin the decision to accept
redundancy was ‘a traumatic thing to go through’. He decided to follow his children who
had taken a ‘year out’ after university. His ‘year out’ was spent on leisure activities and
doing jobs around the house. He then found casual work driving for a car hire company
for 20 hours a week. Having spent his whole life working full time with a lot of
responsibility and stress, he now wanted exactly the opposite, a part-time job with
few responsibilities: ‘I’ve got the best of both worlds ... financially I’m OK, I have
hardly any stress and I can still say that I’m working’s great.’
For some of those taking voluntary redundancy, dissatisfaction with how their job had
been affected by work reorganization prior to the redundancy was an important factor in
the decision. For example, Keith (59, employed 40 years as a lab technician) commented
that: ‘I’d conditioned myself that if the opportunity came up, I would take it. I’d been
sidelined after the shift change, I’d been a supervisor but I wasn’t wanted on the new
system ...
There is evidence of age discrimination on the part of managers in a number of
accounts. For example, Jeff (aged 54 at redundancy, employed 27 years as a craftsman)
recalled being made to feel inadequate before he took the redundancy: ‘Once you get to
50 you are seen as surplus to requirements.’ At first Jeff found it hard to decide what to do
with all the extra free time, but he had now ‘learnt to live with leisure time’. He enjoyed
going out for walks, doing extra cleaning, DIY and gardening and he was planning to
spend two winter months in Spain.
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For Alan (aged 53, employed 37 years, finishing as a personnel manager), who had felt
‘angry and concerned’ for several years at developments in his department, ‘the final
straw’ arrived when all employees over the age of 50 were interviewed by their managers
and asked if they wanted to take redundancy. ‘I was told that if I didn’t go then I might
have to work beyond 55.’ Although he wanted to stay at work until he was 55, the fear of
losing the early retirement package persuaded him to accept the redundancy. He had now
obtained a lorry driver licence through SPT and was registered with an agency which
enabled him to ‘work when I want’. He was not seeking permanent employment and
enjoying not feeling stressed as he had done during his last few years at the works.
For some, chance life events around the time of the redundancies provided a new
perspective on life priorities and persuaded them to accept the package. Chris (aged 51 at
redundancy, employed 34 years, in production) stated that:
Not that I wanted to finish but I’m over 50 so there’s more in line behind me than in front ...I
would have liked a few more years to build my pension, but then I went to a funeral of a guy my
age and I thought ...get out and see what’s there ... People my age left because they wanted to
go. It wasn’t ‘hard redundancies’ if you like, and we had the choice to be cross-matched. I don’t
mean its easy being made redundant, but it was softened by the redundancy package. If that
hadn’t been around I think people would have fought more, but it sweetened the deal. Thirty
years ago I would have been against it I would have said ‘It’s not your job to sell.’
Here Chris was articulating a clear shift in cultural values among the workforce from
an earlier ethical commitment to defending jobs for the next generation to the current
acceptance of the shorter-term protection of jobs for those under 50. It is also striking that
he talked about not wanting to finish but also ‘people my age left because they wanted to
go’. These comments illustrate the complexity and ambivalence involved in ‘voluntary’
redundancy decisions.
It seems that the ‘voluntary’ redundancy decision was influenced by varying
combinations of individual, cultural and structural factors. These included health issues,
life events, workplace assumptions and values, managerial practices, and assessments of
current and future redundancy entitlements. For those experiencing ‘involuntary’
redundancy, there is evidence of resigned acceptance, in the preceding years, that they
were likely to be made redundant at some stage. Although nearly always shocked when it
happened, in many accounts, the over-riding emotion was relief that they had reached
50 before losing their jobs and, therefore, had access to their occupational pension. For
those in their late 40s, on the other hand, redundancy meant leaving work with their
pension effectively frozen until they reached 65, and so they were more likely to apply
for cross-matching to another plant within the company. Cross-matching was not the
preferred option for older workers as it involved either relocation, with its associated
disruption for families, or long journeys to work.
Peter (employed 33 years as a crane driver) felt he had no choice but to accept cross-
matching following redundancy because he was 49 and, therefore, not yet eligible to
access his pension. Following cross-matching, he worked a 12-hour rotating shift system
(four 12-hour days followed by four days off). This involved him, on the day shift,
getting up at 5 a.m. and returning home at 7 p.m. On nights he left home at 5.30 p.m. and
returned home at 8 a.m. the following day. He was now spending most of his time
‘burning tail ends off coils’: ‘The last four days on shift, have made me bad, I’m very
tired. The heat is very draining, as a crane driver I’m not used to it. I don’t sleep well.’
Not surprisingly his plan was to give up the job when he reached 50 and could access
his pension and ‘look for a part-time job’. It is, therefore, understandable that most of the
employees over 50 took redundancy in preference to cross-matching. While not
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exercising choice, they saw themselves as relatively fortunate by comparison with their
colleagues under 50.
For Andrew (aged 50 at the time of redundancy, employed 34 years in production), the
first concern was the fate of his mates. ‘I knew that I would get to 50.’ One of his keenest
recollections from the last few years of the works was the feeling that many of the older
employees had that they: ‘had to get to their fiftieth birthday. We were all wishing our
lives away ... It took me a long time realize that I had to look after myself but we all
do ... Redundancy is now part of life, it wasn’t like this 20 years ago.’
These accounts suggest that there was a continuum of experience rather than a
sharp distinction between the voluntary and compulsory redundancies. There is evidence
of interplay between individual choice, life events, culture and organizational constraints
across this continuum of experience. For example, the account provided by Ian (aged 55,
employed for 25 years in production) illustrates the significance of employer strategy and
workplace culture in influencing ‘voluntary’ redundancy decisions. Ian recounted
explicit pressure from managers and felt that the human resource department just saw
him as a number, one of many over the age of 50, and ‘one of the first to be approached
for redundancy’. He described his redundancy as a ‘compulsory voluntary redundancy’,
having intended to retire at the age of 59 when he would have qualified for a full pension.
He still felt emotionally attached to his former workplace. It was like an extended family
to him, he had been back up to the plant following the closure and said, in his mind he
could still hear the sounds of the old furnace and his colleagues talking about the football
the night before. Initially, he was pleased to spend more time with his family and work on
his house. He was now seeking part-time work as a means of supplementing his pension,
for his ‘self-respect’ and to provide some structure in his life. Ian’s experience illustrates
well the issues that will be taken up in the next section in considering how these men
managed the transition from ‘steel workers’ to ‘multi-active’ lives.
Post redundancy: ‘There’s more to life than work’
Very few of the over 50s from Corus talked about retiring. The acceptance of retirement
by men in their 50s was usually explicitly linked to ill-health. As noted by Gould and
Saurama (2004: 81), poor health is the primary factor legitimizing early exit from the
labour market. Huw (made redundant at 56, employed 40 years as an engineer) stated that
he had now accepted retirement for health reasons. He had been diagnosed with cancer
two years prior to the redundancies, and his wife had wanted him to finish work at that
time but he had chosen to continue working so he could support his three daughters
through university. His wife was pleased that he was no longer being given a choice to
stay at the plant.
A small minority of the men over 50 from Corus were seeking alternative full-time
employment following redundancy. For example, Jim (employed on plant decom-
missioning until his fiftieth birthday, 33 years in production) was seeking a full-time job
and stated that he would like to work until he was 65: ‘It is driving me nuts at home. I am
climbing the walls.’ His wife was not employed and wanted him to find work because he
was ‘moaning about the house’. He said he would be ‘happy stacking shelves in a
supermarket’. He had a responsible well-paid job in steel but would now prefer a job
without ‘too much responsibility ... I need to feel useful, at the moment I am not.’
A common theme emerging from the few seeking full-time employment was the
difficulty of renegotiating time and space with their wives. Suddenly there was not just a lot
of time to manage but also much more time at home with their wives, especially where
their wives were not in paid employment. As shift workers they had often spent more time
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with their ‘extended family’ of workmates than with their partners and had established
routines of separate space and time. Tensions were most likely to arise where partners not
only found themselves sharing time and space for the first time, but were also experiencing
a sharp reduction in their living standards, as was the case for those without access to the
occupational pension. This is illustrated by Tom’s account (aged 48, employed 32 years at
ASW in production, now working as a full-time advice worker):
I was 12 weeks out of work. It was hard to say the least, getting used to being with the wife.
It caused friction, I’d done shift work all my life, she was used to her space. When I was there all
the time, we were getting on each other’s nerves. She was shocked at first, ‘We’ll have to change
our lifestyle’ – I was earning good money ‘we can’t have this and that ...’ We’d had three or
four holidays a year, we had to cut down. We had to sell her car ... Things have been a lot better
since I’ve been working, and I’m going out the door every day.
Most of the Corus men over 50, however, were not seeking full-time employment.
They were restructuring their lives around a combination of activities including taking
courses (usually organized through SPT), home improvements, hobbies, part-time and
voluntary work. None of these men talked explicitly about WLB but many valued time
with partners and families and time to develop themselves, often for the first time in their
lives. They also highlighted the need to stay active, do something useful and maintain
self-respect. These men were reorienting themselves with different degrees of
enthusiasm and resignation to a scaling down of the role of paid work in their lives
which few had actively planned.
While some of this ‘multi-active’ group (Beck, 2000) were happy not working and felt
they ‘had earned a break’ from paid work, most were working part-time or seeking part-
time or voluntary work. These men’s orientation to work reflected their life-course stage
and financial security. Usually they had paid off their mortgages and did not have
dependent children. Most had wives who were in employment or who had recently
retired from employment and, therefore, they were not sole breadwinners. The
importance of the pension in facilitating and legitimizing part-time employment for older
men is highlighted by the fact that at ASW, where those made redundant over 50 did not
have a pension, none of the men interviewed were planning to work part-time, except one
individual who was in receipt of a pension following a previous redundancy experience.
Some men who were working part-time had taken this route because they had been
unsuccessful in their search for full-time employment. Derek (aged 59, employed for
25 years as an electrical engineer) had applied unsuccessfully for a number of full-time
positions. He had now found a part-time job as a mini-bus driver for a local school. He now
saw this as a ‘blessing in disguise’ as he was enjoying spending more time at home and
having a less stressful workload. His wife also worked part-time and with their combined
earnings and the pension, their income was only slightly lower than before the redundancy.
Unsurprisingly, many in the ‘multi-active’ group had found the experience of time on
their hands, following redundancy, very hard to manage, having previously experienced
life as structured more or less entirely around full-time employment and the social
relationships associated with paid work. Many commented that it took time to ‘get used
to not having to work’ and to ‘get to grips with not being there anymore’, and many
missed old friends and being part of a workplace community, even if the quality of their
lives had improved since they had left the steel industry.
Brian (employed for 40 years in production, aged 60 at the time of voluntary
redundancy, also ISTC Union Official) recalled:
For the first 12 months I really regretted going. I missed the company at work and my
involvement with the union. Suddenly there was just nothing there. I hadn’t been away from the
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plant for more than a fortnight in 40 years. Nothing can prepare you for that. I still kept in touch.
I went down there regularly. I kept in touch with the lads socially as well. I went on site three
times a week to begin with. It was really difficult going from being so involved to nothing.
For many, part-time employment was perceived as a solution to this abrupt change
from a life structured around paid work and the social relationships of work. Keith (59,
employed 40 years as a lab technician) commented that:
Financially I was fairly sound. I only worried about going from working 24/7 to doing nothing.
My biggest concern was keeping myself occupied ... I am the steward of the local rugby club,
just on a part-time basis so it’s convenient. I’ve been doing that for 10 months. It’s not out of
financial necessity, it helps keep me occupied.
A feeling of loss of structure and purpose prompted many to seek alternative activities
and their accounts suggest that those who had engaged in activities and social
relationships outside their work during their years in the steel industry were better placed
to adapt to having more free time and control over their time, following redundancy.
Immediately following the redundancy, Edward (aged 54, employed 37 years in
mechanical engineering) experienced a ‘Monday morning feeling’ and could not get used
to the idea of not going to work. He then decided that, ‘I want to put something back into
the community’ and was now working as a volunteer for a drugs and family support unit.
He had been the fixture secretary of the local junior rugby union team for the last 21 years
and was continuing in this role.
Edward also talked about the pleasure in not having his week planned out in detail and
in spending much more time at home. Many of the multi-active group referred to the
process of discovery, for the first time in their lives, that they could have control over
their time, and exercise choice over whether and when to work. Kenneth (aged 52, 30
years in production) stated that, after feeling shock and uncertainty at the time of the
closure announcement: ‘I started thinking positively, I don’t need to work if I don’t want
to.’ He reflected that: ‘Although I’ve never regretted staying with the company, life in the
works was framed by the fear of losing pension and redundancy rights. You couldn’t
walk away. If I get a job now there is no pressure.’
Since becoming redundant he had, ‘told the dole that I’m going to be choosy.
I’m looking for work for two or three days a week.’ He described himself as being ‘very
busy’. Besides working for his brother’s taxi firm at weekends he was a keen
photographer, enjoyed DIY and occasionally bought and sold cars: ‘Once I knew what
the package was, I was not too concerned ... not working shifts is a relief ... There is
more to life than work.
Discussion and conclusion
The research findings demonstrate that exit from employment for older workers
continues to be a highly institutionalized experience, structured by inequalities in pension
entitlements (Vickerstaff and Cox, 2005). Those over 50 experiencing redundancy at
Corus could be described as ‘beneficiaries of Golden Age capitalism’ (Esping-Andersen,
2001: 141), compared with their peer group at ASW who had lost their pension and with
younger colleagues at Corus experiencing redundancy. However, even among those
with the financial security of a pension, very few had actively planned their exit from the
industry, in spite of awareness of the risk of redundancy. Most accounts reflect a sense of
passivity and powerlessness in the years preceding the redundancies, often dissatisfaction
with changes in work organization, and a sense of having age, experience and skills
devalued. There was a shared experience of ‘waiting to get to 50’, of ‘wishing lives
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away’, and little evidence of individualization, in the sense of taking responsibility for
active lifestyle management.
There was a continuum of experience between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’
redundancy and interpretations of the redundancy decision were often complex and
ambivalent. Those individuals at the involuntary end of the continuum had no control
over the timing of their exit, but were relieved to leave with a pension. Those
individuals at the voluntary end of the continuum referred to poor health, care
responsibilities or chance life events as triggers for their decision but also to the
influence of work stress or fear of missing the opportunity of a good redundancy
package. Where redundancy was seen to be ‘the honourable thing to do’, a sense of
moral responsibility, rather than individual preference was the driving factor. Where
individuals had been made to feel ‘surplus to requirements’ on reaching 50, ageist
attitudes and discriminatory practices had threatened to undermine the self-respect that
they had previously derived from their work. The importance of self-respect was a
common theme in interpretations of the redundancy and post redundancy experience.
This confirms the view that, even where early exit is the only realistic option available,
older workers may interpret it as a choice rather than a compulsion, in order to assert
some sense of control over their lives (Gould and Sarama, 2004). Asserting individual
control in this way is likely to assist the process of adaptation to loss of a job, since
self-esteem is an important component of the ‘change competence’ required of workers
experiencing redundancy (Stuart, 2005).
Seeking a sense of purpose following redundancy was essential to sustaining self-
respect. Consistently with other research findings (Vickerstaff and Cox, 2005), the men
in this study rejected the passive connotation of retirement. Prior to the redundancies,
most of these men were not engaged in active life-planning but finding themselves
without a job, with a pension and without the prospect of alternative full-time
employment equivalent to their previous jobs, encouraged them to accept a scaling down
of paid work. ‘Multi-activity’ (Beck, 2000) emerged, more by default than design, as a
way of making the best of the situation, retrospectively seen as ‘a blessing in disguise’.
The research findings suggest that, following the redundancies, a number of factors
was significant in supporting the development of multi-activity, namely financial
security, the ability to renegotiate time and space with partners, opportunities for
personal development and training, and a sense of entitlement to engage in activities
other than paid work.
Multi-activity is only feasible in the context of financial security (Beck, 2000). For
the redundant steel workers, financial security was provided, not just by access to the
pension, but also by a prior sustained period of continuous high-wage employment,
by having homes that had been paid for, by partners also having jobs, and children who
were no longer dependent. Beck’s discussion of how individuals might be enabled to plan
their lives around a range of activities does not address the interdependencies between
individuals and their partners and families. While those developing multi-active lives
were experiencing autonomy from the time constraints of paid work they were often
sharing time and space to a much greater degree than before with their partners.
The ability to renegotiate time and space with wives was an essential part of the process
of adapting from full-time employment to multi-activity. Where couples found this
difficult, husbands were more likely to continue to seek full-time employment. Wight
(1993: 98) also found that the difficulties couples had in adjusting to husbands’
retirement were frequently related to the necessity of re-negotiating gendered space.
As well as providing financial security, access to a pension provided a sense of
entitlement to take a break from full-time employment, as did the recognition that there
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were not enough good jobs for younger people. Many of these men had gone into the
steel industry straight from school. Some had children who had gone to university or
taken a ‘year out’. They were encouraged by SPT to think about their own personal
development as well as being provided with training opportunities. These factors
combined to legitimize the development of multi-active lives.
Off-setting the enabling factors described above, those whose prior lives had been
centred continuously, and more or less exclusively, on the steel industry and their role
as family breadwinner were ill prepared for reflexive life planning and multi-activity.
Planning and managing their own time, on a daily and weekly basis, was outside the
experience of these men whose lives had been structured by the routines and demands
of full-time employment. Those who had engaged in activities outside work during
their years in the steel industry appear to have been better prepared for ‘multi-activity’
than those whose leisure and social lives had revolved exclusively around full-time
A number of implications for HR practitioners and trade unions emerges from this
research. The WLB agenda needs to be connected not only with debates about pensions
and flexible retirement transitions, but also with broader labour market and workplace
training policy. It may be helpful to shift the policy focus away from WLB to the promotion
of multi-activity throughout the life-course, especially in the current context of retirement
deferral and pressures on pensions (DWP, 2006). In the UK context, WLB policies should
be developed to cover all employees, male as well as female, and not only those with
family or care responsibilities. There should be opportunities to access occupational
pensions for those wishing to reduce their working hours while remaining in employment
(in accordance with new Inland Revenue rules implemented in 2006). There is a need to
address pervasive ageist views within the workplace. There is a need for more creativity in
managing transitions to retirement and in exploring job design for older workers (Loretto
et al., 2005). Career management processes should be developed to encourage individuals
to plan for the future and to support individuals who are active in their lives outside work.
Employees, perhaps through their trade unions, should have access to career guidance and
training opportunities beyond the requirements of their current job. Linked to all these
recommendations is the need to question organizational norms that assume the primacy of
paid work in people’s lives. It is well established that challenging these norms is an
essential component of gender equity strategies (Rapoport et al., 2002). These norms will
also need to be challenged in order to ensure sustainable employment and financial
security over the life-course for future generations of men and women.
Employment and retirement transitions for individuals in their 50s and 60s, in
contemporary European societies, are occurring against a backdrop of fundamental
change in the structures and cultures of ageing. These changes are likely to have as big an
impact on the labour market and workplace over the next three decades as the
transformation of gender relations has had over the past three. A key aspect of human
resource management and labour market policy in the future will be the development of
effective institutional arrangements to support multi-active lives during the years of paid
employment and beyond.
The authors wish to thank the reviewers, the editor and other contributors to the special
issue for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts.
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In this concluding chapter an interpretation will be presented of social influences on the characteristics of old age and retirement. These have been discussed under various headings throughout the book. I have examined the connections between the emergence of retirement and the political economy of capitalism; considered difficulties in the transition from work to retirement, for both men and women; documented the struggle over questions of income security and social welfare; and, finally, reviewed the politics of ageing and the role of organised groups of pensioners.
There is a widespread view that `jobs for life' and stable employment have been consigned to the past. The impact of technological and institutional changes are said to have eradicated traditional labour market patterns, brought about the destandardisation and individualisation of work and ushered in a new `age of insecurity'. The transformation of work, according to Sennet (1998), has witnessed the advent of a `New Capitalism' in which there is `no long term'. This paper is concerned with explanations for the paradox of pervasive insecurity and the rise in long-term employment in the 1990s in the UK. The analysis of long-term employment in the UK suggests that insecurity is not explained by compositional changes in the workforce or in terms of labour market restructuring. Instead insecurity is best understood in its institutional and ideological contexts, as the `manufactured uncertainty' that attends the greater exposure of the state sector to market forces, corporate restructuring in the private sector in terms of mergers, acquisitions and sell-offs and the diminution of social protection systems.