Are we seeing older workers returning to work ?

The last six months have seen the media image of older workers exiting employment and retiring  being financially solvent and this is fuelling inflation and so harming the UK economy.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal a more complex picture (Employment in the UK – Office for National Statistics ( Looking at the expert analysis of  these new  ONS figures throws up  a number of significant issues.

Overall employment rate has hit 76% for the first time since early 2020 and has risen by 0.3 percentage points in the last quarter. Economic inactivity is at 21.0%, the same last month but down 0.3 points on previous quarter. Unemployment at 3.8 % is relatively flat. (London’s figures on economic inactivity show 20.9% but unemployment at 4.7 % is higher than other regions )

Around two thirds of employment growth in this last quarter has been amongst  people aged over 50 (with just over half of employment growth in part-time work). This  rise in employment appears to be being driven in particular by higher employment for older men (and especially for those aged 65 and over). Interestingly employment rates for people aged 65 and over have seen little or no impact from the pandemic.

But  we need to see this in context not just as a blip – employment rates for 50–64-year-olds were rising before the pandemic but have fallen since. The economic inactivity  rate of this age groupthis quarter is 27.2 per cent – and up 2 percentage points from the beginning of 2020.There are still half a million more older people out of work than before the pandemic, with population growth for this group feeding through into higher worklessness more than higher employment.

Of course, the big problem is that the term older workersconceal differences. Older women may be losing out – with growing differences in the employment rate ‘gap’ between older men and women. This is now widening for the first time on record –the gap had narrowed from 12.0 to 8.0 percentage points in the decade pre pandemic, but now widening to 9.1 percentage points.

Ill health affects whether you work more now. Economic inactivity due to long-term ill health has risen – to  2.55 million – this accounts for nearly a third  of all economic inactivity, compared with a quarter pre pandemic .

Inevitably there have been larger rises among older people because they are more likely to have long-term health conditions. But the growth is explained by those with long term health conditions unable to get back into the labour market than leaving work.

All these figures need to be looked at a London level plus looking at variations within the capital ,by sector and by income levels particularly those on low incomes. There are also crucial differences facing  ethnic minorities. Wise Age has called on the Greater London Authority to provide  a better understanding of the needs and circumstances of older workers in London particularly the barriers to employment with London based evidence and data. At a London level we need to know more about skills levels and gaps, the impact of health issues, gender issues, ethnicity, financial issues as well as previous work experiences and whether they were negative, to provide the right support.