Jeremy Hunt, knowingly or otherwise, stirred up quite a hornet’s nest the other day when talking of the over 50s. He said, on LBC, that life “doesn’t just have to be about going to the golf course.” His unfortunate comments follow hard on the heels of several competing narratives. Such as, the over 50s are: abandoning the workplace, or, being let down by employers, or, being forced to take up jobs because of the cost-of-living crisis, to ageism preventing people getting back to work.
From our own research we can say that the over 50s want to work. So, what is the real story behind the headlines? Armed with a greater understanding, what can government and employers do?, if anything.
What are the ‘economically inactive’ facts?
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), for the year ended June 2022 show there were 3.5 million economically inactive 50–64-year-olds. Of these, 1.3 were sick, 1.2 million were retirees, staggeringly half a million were unpaid carers, and 460 thousand others. Furthermore, according to the ONS, of the 50–64-year-olds that are economically inactive, 792 thousand (22%) wanted to work. 368 thousand of whom were sick or unpaid carers.
As a counterpoint there were 3.3 million economically inactive 25–49-year-olds. Amazingly 1.1 million of these were unpaid carers and a million were sick. Of the 3.3 million, 1.3 million (39%) wanted to work.
At TheBoldAge we take issue with painting the economically inactive over 50s as unproductive. Quite the opposite is true. Take unpaid carers, they are saving the NHS billions. Early retirees are also playing their part. Many are valuably employed in the voluntary sector: mentoring, working unpaid for charities or in the community, driving people to hospital or looking after grandchildren. All these roles provide immense economic value to the country. When they are not volunteering, they are spending. Which in turn helps to keep the likes of the food and beverage sector, hotels, theatres, cinemas, dare we say it golf courses, airlines and public attractions afloat.
What can and needs to be done?
Many of the positive actions are age agnostic. Firstly, there needs to be a joined-up approach to work, involving the government, employers and interest groups, as well as the economically inactive themselves.
Secondly, as discussed by Louise Murphy, from the Resolution Foundation, in a BBC article, childcare provision and universal credit systems need to be amended to incentivise people into work. Childcare support would also release older workers, who care for their grandchildren, to re-enter the workplace.
Then, there is a much-needed review of occupational health. The level of sickness, be that mental or physical, is astronomical and needs a thorough, root cause review. This evaluation needs to prioritise getting people back into suitable work. As part of this, ministers need to prioritise supporting people with disabilities back into the workplace.
Next, lifelong learning and financial support for re-training needs careful consideration and focus. Then there is the, sometimes, vexed issues of hybrid and flexible working, including job-sharing. Addressing the whole notion of flexible working, including extended holiday breaks and sabbaticals, could well entice early retirees back.
Another key pump primer is the raising of the £1million lifetime allowance on tax-free pension savings.
Addressing ageism needs taking seriously by policymakers and employers alike. Luke Price, of the Centre for Ageing Better, speaking to the Commons work and pensions committee. said “those who do attempt to return come up against companies unwilling to hire older recruits. He went onto say “Older workers face quite a lot of ageism – there’s quite a lot of ageism in society generally,”
Another area to tackle is how to incentivise and make it easier for the over 50s to start businesses. The over 50s have significant life and work experiences, and a greater risk tolerance. Making them ideally placed to start and build the businesses. However, one key barrier that needs addressing is how to grease the wheels of capital and debt providers. Some of whom may find it more difficult to back older age entrepreneurs.
In summary, Jeremy Hunt needs to do the hard yards to understand the underlying data for all age groups. Then, tackle the genuine issues, rather than oversimplifying the discussion, and making headline grabbing statements about early retirees. Misleading narratives are not helpful.
With over 2 million people, aged 25-64, wanting to work and 792 thousand of these being over 50, there is plenty of scope for the government to take positive action. Boldies are willing to play their part.