Rumours of a ‘Great Unretirement’ are not just premature – they’re damaging
The latest data is challenging the myth that older workers are returning to the jobs market. And now is not the time for complacency.
Our Deputy Director for Work, Dr Emily Andrews, outlines the harmful consequences of ignoring the ongoing absence of many over 50s from the labour market.
Despite what you may have heard, we're not currently witnessing a ‘Great Unretirement’. And referring to one right now risks making us complacent about the barriers that older workers still face in trying to return to the labour market – and the still very large numbers who remain locked out of it.
We were not witnessing a Great Unretirement earlier this summer, when it was hailed in response to a surge in employment among people aged 65 and over – a surge that has already dissipated. And we are not witnessing one now, even though we have seen an increase in 50-64 employment in the most recent statistics.
The latest data does show a drop in the number of people in this age cohort who are neither looking for nor seeking work – this is now 3.5 million, down from 3.6 million in the previous quarter. This has indeed been driven by a fall in the number of working-age people describing themselves as retired. And we have seen a concurrent rise in the employment rate of 50-64s: up to 71.1% from 70.4% in the last quarter. So yes – some people in this age group are coming back to work.
But these changes do not add up to a ‘Great Unretirement’ – not yet, at any rate. There are still 265,000 more people in this age group who are economically inactive than there were pre-pandemic. Based on pre-pandemic trends, there should be at least that many fewer economically inactive people in this age group. There has been a change in the last quarter – but not a ‘Great’ one.
These are not gilded baby boomers looking for something to fill their time – but people who are facing financial struggles to which employment is the best answer.
And that change has not even been an ‘unretirement’, according to a new survey of 50-65s who left work during the pandemic. The latest ONS data shows that workers aged 50-65 who have now come back to work were much more likely to have originally lost their job, rather than having made a positive choice to retire from the workforce which they are now regretting.
Finances are clearly the driving factor. Over 50s considering a return to work are less financially resilient than those who are not: they are less able to absorb unexpected costs, and more likely to have ongoing responsibilities for paying rent or a mortgage.
These are not gilded baby boomers looking for something to fill their time – but people who are facing financial struggles to which employment is the best answer. Put simply, when asked what was making them consider coming back to work, most 50-65 year olds in this group said “for the money”.
But will they really be able to return? Almost a third of people aged 50-69 who left the workforce during the pandemic said they had experienced age discrimination when looking for work. Only 3 in 10 jobs are advertised with flexible working – even though this is the number one thing this group say they want and need to return to work.
Now is not the time for complacency. Demographic change in the workplace is real as the workforce grows older– and our labour market has not caught up. Only 1 in 6 employers have firm plans to introduce age-inclusive policies in the near future. Only 1 in 10 out-of-work 50-64s are engaging with any form of employment support. And those that do are not succeeding: the latest statistics from the Government Work and Health programme show that just 13% of participants aged 60+ are achieving a job outcome within two years.
We need action now. We need the government to open up eligibility to the Restart scheme, so that more people can access support to navigate the jobs market, without having to come via the Jobcentre (an institution that does good work but is tainted by its association with benefits and sanctions).
We need the People and Skills element of the Shared Prosperity Fund brought forward next year – and for more of it to provide the kind of targeted, tailored support that our research suggests will achieve better outcomes.
And we need government to give the same kind of attention to 50+ worklessness – through better scrutiny and monitoring of the data – that they do for workless younger people.
Talk to me about a ‘Great Unretirement’ when employers are welcoming workers in their mid-60s back to the workplace with open arms. I believe we will get there – and with our Age-friendly Employer Pledge, we are working to make that happen. But we’re not there yet. And pretending that we are just lets us off the hook.
This is a problem that will not solve itself.