An uncertain 2022 for older workers looks very likely

The publication of this month’s employment figures by ONS give some grounds for optimism for the UK’s economic recovery. Overall employment has risen in the last quarter though not to pre-pandemic levels and we are seeing record vacancies with employers struggling to recruit in some sectors. But, and it’s a big but,  older workers are not faring well.

There were  170,000 fewer older workers in employment compared to 2019. And the number of 50-64s in work fell by a further 24,000 with over 50s also facing the largest number of redundancies of any age group – over 39,000 between August and October. The employment gap between 50-64s and 35-49s now stands at 14.8% – nearly two percentage points higher than at the start of the pandemic. We now have the spectre of a rising number of older workers over a quarter being “economically inactive” either by choice or being forced into this position.  This is 3.5 million people who may not be contributing to the economy and certainly not a good indication of older workers being valued.

Understandably younger workers have received a lot of policy attention since the pandemic hit us. But research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (https://ifs.org.uk/uploads/WP202139-A-year-of-COVID-the-evolution-of-labour-market-and-financial-inequalities-through-the-crisis-3.pdf) has shown that younger workers did recover much more rapidly than the over 50s. The over 50s have seen employment fall and a much weaker recovery on hours than all other age groups. The explanation is that over 50s have not been adaptable to the changing job market. 41 per cent of under 50s who stopped working in the first lockdown found a new job in March 2021 compared to just 17 per cent of over 50s. And a third of under 30s who were not working in the first lockdown had found work in a new industry by March of this year – contrast this with 7 per cent of over 50s. And government support has targeted younger workers such as the Kick Start scheme.

These stark findings mean we need greater support for older workers to stop older workers becoming more challenged with being left behind. But simplistic arguments that vacancies as delivery drivers or bar staff can be solved overnight just by employing some “willing” older workers don’t cut much ice. The labour market is more complex and not all over 50s want this type of work. Instead, we need to have up-to-date data on what’s happened to older workers in London. What are the overall employment rates of older workers post-pandemic; who has been made unemployed in what sectors and for how long; who are exiting the employment market into enforced retirement and why; what are skill levels amongst older people and the gaps; and how do employment rates vary across London and above all what are the views of older people.

We know from national studies that the labour market is challenging. A new report by Legal and General on over 50s in the labour market shows the challenges of ageism (Over 50s in the labour market (legalandgeneral.com). The 60-64 age group surveyed showed that 64 per cent believe their age made employers less likely to hire them due to feeling overqualified and not having the right skills. 17 per cent cite health reasons for not getting a job which increases with age and then there are caring responsibilities more prevalent in the over 50s.

We need a clear policy response with the right support. The government offer to older workers is now rebranded as “50 plus choices”. The sentiment might be right, but it needs the right tailored approach to different regions and to different segments in the “over 50 workforce”. London has high levels of unemployment and claimant count and how the over 50s are faring needs urgent attention. The London Recovery Board has just announced a youth summit to tackle issues facing younger Londoners and is developing a dedicated London Collaboration Fund to support young people. We look forward to hearing the Mayor announce a similar dedicated programme for older workers. 

Tim Whitaker

Trustee Wise Age

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