The “precariousness” of older workers


Judith Davey

The dictionary definition of precariousness is uncertainty, instability, insecurity, dependence on circumstances beyond one’s control. But the term – often with the synonym “precarity” has been used recently to apply in the labour market. Precarity refers to the condition of temporary, flexible, casual and intermittent work leading to economic and social instability. Guy Standing’s book “The Precariat” (published 2011)[1] suggests that there is an emerging class, a growing number of people facing lives of insecurity, moving in and out of jobs that give little meaning to their lives. This trend is linked to labour market reforms that have strengthened management and weakened the bargaining power of employees since the late 1970s. Precarity particularly affects workers in the service sector, youth, women, and immigrants.

But how does this relate to older workers?

A recent paper [2] suggests that older workers may be subject to several types of precariousness, not solely in relation to paid employment; but to other domains of their lives that overlap with work. The authors call this “ontological precarity”[3].

Precarity in the workforce

Older workers may face several forms of insecurity:

  • In order to supplement low pension incomes, older people may take low-level, low income jobs, divorced from their previous careers.
  • The jobs they have to take may lack opportunities for career progression.
  • They may lack access to training and be overlooked in this area.
  • Work intensification and restructuring may mean that the jobs allocated might not be appropriate or sustainable for older people, increasing both physical and psychological pressures.
  • Security from dismissal. When posts are cut, older workers may lose out on jobs. Ageism may especially affect women.
  • Lack of representation through trade unions, etc.

Household circumstances

Household circumstances can reinforce precarity or act as a buffer against it. Older people who are married, own their homes outright, live in dual-earner households, have been  able to save money throughout their lives and who no longer have dependent children are least likely to report reduced ontological security. Being divorced or single, living in a low-income household, having a mortgage to pay off and having dependent children still living at home, can result in heightened ontological precarity.

Financial Circumstances

Financial circumstances can also act to increase or buffer precarity. Male white-collar workers with generous pension entitlements and savings, who own their homes outright or are close to paying off their mortgages, will be relatively financially secure in later life.

Women are less likely to build up significant pension incomes, due to periods of child care-related absences from the labour market and or having been employed in part-time jobs. Low earnings in female-dominated work will also restrict the amount that they had been able to save. However, married women may have some protection from financial precarity in retirement by their husbands’ pension entitlements.

There is a relationship between marital status and housing tenure. Divorced women are less likely to own their homes outright than married men and women living in dual-earner households. Those who had taken out new mortgages in their forties or fifties may find that the continuing need to pay their mortgages requires them to keep on working, however unwillingly. Divorced women may also suffer financially by the loss of access to their husband’s pension savings.

Retirement income policies

Where the age of eligibility for state pensions is raised there may be little realistic alternative to employment. People may like to retire before pension age, but cannot afford to do so with no alternative sources of income.

Unless there is some form of welfare state support before pension age, health pressures may force people to stay on in work, however inappropriate.  This combination of financial and health pressures caused considerable anxiety amongst the people interviewed in the research cited.


Older workers may thus be subject to several sources of uncertainty/precarity. Factors related to jobs, income, marital status and housing can reinforce or buffer each other. Older workers may be making decisions about remaining in the workforce or retiring not from free and controlled choice, but based on labour market and/or housing circumstances and policy settings around retirement incomes.  These influences may drive them out of the workforce to avoid stress or force them into a new role that they did not actually wish to undertake, or did not view as suitable for them.

[1] A New Zealand offering in “Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand” Edited by Shiloh Groot, Natasha Tassell Matamua, and Bridgette Masters-Awatere,  Massey University Press,  published 2017.

[2] Lain D, Airey L, Loretto W, Vickerstaff S (2018). Understanding older worker precarity: the intersecting domains of jobs, households and the welfare state. Ageing & Society 1–23. 3.

[3]  A metaphysical term which relates to existence – presumably a wide view of existence.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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1 Response to The “precariousness” of older workers

  1. lifecameos says:

    As a single woman for many years, and one who never co-owned property with a partner, I was able to pay off a mortgage on a small property, and now own my own little home unit. But even so I am now caught up in health cost problems. As a teacher I had a “good” income for a woman, but periods of being redundant, then being a lower income earning call centre operator when there was an “oversupply’ of teachers greatly reduce my ability to save. At seventy one I now have a small financial reserve to supplement my superannuation in emergencies. I find I need colonoscopies due to the prevalence of bowel cancer in close family members. I paid for my first one recently as I did not meet criteria, having “no symptoms”. The results were not good and I will need another one in a year’s time. My parents were long lived. How much do I spend on my health ? and when ? This is an ongoing issue for many elderly.


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