We are all aware that the UK economy is stalling. One of the reasons given is labour shortages. One reason for labour shortages is the number of people aged over fifty leaving work before they receive their State Pension.
Until recently I would have been described as ‘economically inactive’. I wasn’t at work, claiming benefits or of pensionable age. A more pleasant descriptor is ‘Silver Quitter’ or even ‘Great Escapée’.
I deeply resented being described as economically inactive as I pay all my household bills, support the local economy through food and other purchases, and pay for everyday activities. I’m not culturally inactive as I engage in local arts, exhibitions and go to events. I’m not socially inactive as I meet lots of friends and engage in groups. I’m not civically inactive as I’m a trustee of a local and national charity, I chair a giving fund and I’m a member of the North East Child Poverty Commission. I’m not politically inactive as I engage in campaigning, advocacy, lobbying and policy work. I also have some caring commitments.
So why did many older workers, like me, leave the workforce in the last few years? Some of us were in the fortunate position of being homeowners, maybe we had final pension salaries or defined benefit pensions, or could use our new ‘pension freedoms’. Pension wealth is a strong indicator of when people leave work.
Phoenix Insights, a think tank, found “the main reason people in the UK were leaving the workforce was because they no longer wanted to work” I know many people who worked in public services, often well-paid professionals, who chose to retire early, because they saw the demise and collapse of those services. People who were dedicated to working in the NHS, education, social care and public services, had contributed to and developed those services, and were now being asked to provide worse services at lower costs.
Health conditions, disabilities and caring
However there are also a number of people who aren’t working, but would like to return to the workforce. These include people with a long term health condition or disability. People are now waiting years for joint replacements; this used to be a maximum of six months. Even NHS staff with mental health needs are urged to access therapeutic support provided by charities. Rising long-term sickness is a problem for many organisations, and there is insufficient support to address this problem.
Sickness is twice as likely to force people out of work in the North East of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as in London and South East England (Getting Better? Health and the UK Labour Market, IPPR December 2022).
The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported claims for the personal independence payment (PIP) had doubled to 30,000 a month between July 2021 and July 2022, with no sign of slowing down. This doubling of new disability benefit claims has occurred across medical conditions and all ages, with the fastest rise among teenagers, whose claim rates have tripled.
Many people also have caring commitments; these include caring for their grandchildren as our UK childcare provision is vastly expensive and hard to access. Social care has been cut as local authority budgets have been slashed, so caring for a relative with dementia or a disability is even harder than previously. Employers often refuse a request for flexible working.
Poor terms and conditions
Another key issue is the lack of flexibility and poor terms and conditions offered by too many employers. Many employers will no longer allow staff to work from home, as a matter of principle. The significant increase in travel costs within a failing transport system makes getting to work more precarious and expensive. Work is less meaningful when your contribution is ignored and you are exposed to poor management practices. Workplaces nowadays are less likely to offer welfare, friendships, benefits and security.
There are few programmes for career change or support for people wanting to re-enter the workplace. People want to achieve something meaningful, not just be another number.
People contribute to society in many ways, not just the formal economy. However to bring people back into the formalised workforce means tackling a whole range of issues – well paid and flexible work, more social and childcare, enhanced transport, tackling long NHS waiting lists and having a proper plan to address stress and mental wellbeing.
Earlier this year Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that life “doesn’t just have to be about going to the golf course” for people in their fifties and above. This inaccurate and stereotypical view of the lives of older people shows just how much this government is out of touch. I hope Hunt is soon reunited with his golf club on the 19th hole.