There’s a bit of good and bad news in the latest published ONS employment statistics for older workers and you can take your pick,  though it can be a bit like watching the weather forecast.

In the short term the employment rate for the 50-64s has seen some improvement – a slight rise from 70.6  to 71.2 per cent over the past three months which is positive. Some of this may be due to and increase in  part time working. For example, women aged 50-64 years old are considerably more likely to be in part-time work, with approximately three in ten women in part-time employment in 2023 compared to one in ten men of the same age. The proportion of people aged 50-64 in self-employment increased from 16.8% to 17.9% in 2023.

In terms of economic inactivity, the good news is there has been a bit of a decline though it is still high – 26.5 per cent of adults 50 -64 are economically inactive. Interestingly, for those aged 60-64, there is  gradual upward trend in employment rates, particularly amongst women with a 13.4% increase.

But this needs to be balanced by looking at wider employment statistics which paint a mixed picture. There are signs of a cooling of the labour market and short-term unemployment has risen together with redundancies and vacancies particularly in some sectors continue to fall. For  50-64s there has been a 0.2% increase in unemployment over the past year and the unemployment rate for men aged 50-64 was 1% higher than for women of the same age.

Turning to a closer look at the 50-64s in the ONS statistics reveals some interesting trends which raise important issues. Men aged 50-64 years old were more likely to work longer hours per week than women, with 32% working 40-50 hours compared to 15.4% of women. However, those aged 50-64 were less likely to work flexible hours compared to younger age groups. Women across both age groups were slightly more likely to prefer working from home, with 24.1% of women aged 50-64 opting to work from home compared to 22.8% of men.

Across all sectors, employees aged 50-64 have a broadly similar distribution to 35–49-year-olds. Approximately one in six employees between the ages of 50-64 (17.9%) worked in the banking and finance sector compared to one in five of 35–49-year-olds (19.7%) in the same sectors. The sector with the lowest proportion of people employed in both age groups is agriculture, forestry, and fishing. For women aged 50-64 (24.1%) the most popular employment was in the human health and social work activity sector. This was followed by the education sector (17.3%), and the banking and finance sector (16.3%). This was similar for the highest three proportions of women aged 35-49 years old.

Amongst male employees, 19.5% of those aged 50-64 worked in the banking and finance sector, followed by transport and communication (15.4%) and distribution, hotels, and restaurants (12.5%). This age band are also three times more likely to be employed in manufacturing, transport, and communications than women, and five times more likely to be employed in the construction sector.

The average age of exit from the labour market was 65.3 years old for men and 63.9 years old for women.

Turning to the big problem of those older workers who don’t work – of the 2.1m people aged 50-64 who weren’t working in 2023 (either economically inactive or unemployed) and who had left their employment during the last eight years, 34.2% said they left to retire. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter  said they left due to health reason and 14.8% because of dismissal or redundancy. Leaving to ‘look after the home or family’ was more likely among women (11.8%) than men (5.4%).

But all this needs to be examined against the broader historical trends. The average employment rate for 50 -64s has been steadily increasing from 57.2% in 1995 to 71.3% in 2023. In 2019 it was at its highest rate though started to drop  with the pandemic. Comparing employment rates of March 2020 with today shows less employment – 72.4 per cent with 71.2 per cent. And there are 219,000 more 50-64s who are economically inactive than before covid. That’s nearly the size of the population of Barking and Dagenham !

The big warning signs for older workers continue to be very problematic notably the impact of ill health. The increase in economic inactivity due to long term ill health has continued to rise, part of a wider long-term trend. Nearly a quarter of workers aged 50-64 are now exiting the workforce because they suffer significant health issues and as an age group, they are more likely to have long term health problems. But the rise is also associated with  to people who have been out of work for some time and therefore increasingly extremely disadvantaged in the labour market. This points to the need for better support by employers and access to the right health and particularly preventative support.

These trends are worrying as are some of the media headlines which don’t help matters. The Guardian pronounced boldy in an editorial in August that the 26.5 percent of adults 50-64 who are economically inactive is far too high with key worker shortages for example in teaching. Whilst return to work policies are necessary, we need to understand the problems facing all older workers particularly those who suffer in employment terms so we can  get the right solutions.

There is a growing consensus amongst employment experts that better employment support is vital for tackling the issues facing many older workers who don’t get access to the  right tailored support and government has been urged to improve this provision. But employers also need to markedly step up to employ older workers and devise schemes for flexible working which we know is valued by some older workers and better training for existing older employees – again receipt of training declines with age.

Wise Age daily hear the graphic stories of ageism in employment experienced by our clients  – in the workplace but also in recruitment and the massive hurdles people have to face. It’s fine to have employer pledges for age friendly employers but we need better monitoring of age employment, flexible working, and other age friendly measures as well  and calling out of bad practices which despite the positive rhetoric we know are there.

Tim Whitaker Trustee Wise Age