The over-50s and the world of work: what’s happening and why?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had huge impacts on all aspects of life in the UK, including the world of work. Initially younger workers were the hardest hit, but as restrictions eased, a new picture has emerged – the apparent disengagement of many older workers. Hugh Stickland looks at the work the Office for National Statistics has been doing to help understand some of the factors underlying this.

Since the start of the pandemic our labour market statistics have helped policy makers and the public understand key trends in the UK job market. One major feature for older people has been the increase in economic inactivity – those who are neither working nor actively seeking work (and so do not count as unemployed). This trend has emerged alongside a record number of vacancies, which according to BICS data many businesses report as being difficult to fill. This can pose challenges to supply chains and consumers, as we saw with heavy goods vehicles drivers towards the end of 2021. Increase rates of inactivity also pose questions on individuals’ ability to apply their skills to productive work, maintain a healthy financial situation, and whether ill-health or caring responsibilities prevent them from working.

Last December we published analysis exploring changing trends and shortages in the labour market affecting different occupations and demographic groups, identifying workers aged 50 and above amongst those most likely to become inactive. Clearly, this brought more questions on their circumstances, motivations and movements within the labour market.

How we’ve responded to the challenge

To answer these questions, we have recently developed an ambitious programme of work, and launched a rapid new survey in February targeting the over-50s who had left work since the onset of COVID-19. The Over 50’s Lifestyle Study provides valuable insights into the attitudes and reasons for older adults leaving work, and what might motivate them to return to work. While a lot of workers have left work due to retirement, the reasons for some can be complex and multi-faceted touching on their health, caring responsibilities, financial position and flexible work options. The early findings were published on 1 March, but today we have provided more detailed analysis of this dataset.

To look at this in more detail, we undertook in-depth interviews with 21 adults to help understand more about the complex motivations around working in later life.

Bringing together the evidence from today’s articles

Today we publish three analytical articles covering findings from this survey, analysis of the Labour Force Survey and evidence from qualitative in-depth interviews:

Looking across these three articles, we find there has been an increase in the movement of over-50s from work to inactivity over the course of the pandemic. This has changed a trend of falling inactivity for this group over previous decades. We find a diverse range of different people from different occupations have chosen to stop working, but we note significant changes for highly qualified men from full-time professional occupations. There are also a range of different motivations for stopping work, and although retirement is a key driver, issues around health, caring, change in lifestyle are all important factors too, often overlapping and inter-related. Whilst many aren’t interested in returning to work, those who are would be looking for greater flexibility of hours, the ability to work from home and to be able to fit work around responsibilities such as caring, in order to return to work.

Over-50s and beyond – how we will continue to monitor shortages and key labour market trends

The Office for Statistics Regulation has reviewed our work, commending it for the speed in which it was developed to help answer relevant key questions for this group, whilst maintaining value, quality and trustworthiness.

These releases provide an insight into the decisions why some older adults have left work before retirement age. We at the ONS will continue to provide data on the labour market from our Labour Force Survey, alongside further information from our Census data when this is published later this year.

Image of Hugh Stickland who is the ONS’s Head of Strategy and Engagement

Hugh Stickland is Deputy Director of Public Policy and Analysis at the ONS