Sickness forces 1.6m over-50s out of work as staff shortages bite

Men at work in a factory
Men at work in a factory

Half of over-50s who have dropped out of the workforce are jobless because of long-term sickness or disability, new analysis shows, in a blow to Jeremy Hunt’s ambitions to lure more of this group back into employment.

Analysis of ONS figures by Rest Less, a digital community for over-50s, found that one in two of economically inactive people aged between 50 and 64 said they were not looking for work because of sickness or disability. For all economically inactive over-50s, 59pc cited sickness or disability as the reason.

The findings are a challenge to the Chancellor's push to get more older people back into the economy to help plug persistent staff shortages that businesses say are holding back growth.

In comments made to the Times over the weekend, Mr Hunt said life for over-50s “doesn’t just have to be going to the golf course” and said older workers could “make an enormous contribution”.

Roughly 1.6 million over-50s are out of work due to long-term sickness, the analysis of ONS figures shows, up 20pc since July 2019.

Stuart Lewis, of Rest Less, said: “A rise in long-term ill health has significantly reduced the size of the UKs potential workforce amongst all ages since the pandemic, but it is a particularly large driver of the reduction in available workers in their 50s and 60s.

“Of the 2.8 million people out of work due to long-term sickness, nearly 60pc are aged over 50. Not only is this a national health issue, but it’s increasingly an economic issue too.”

He called for target support for struggling businesses to help them offer more flexible working opportunities “as well as high-quality training programmes to ensure workers of all ages can continue to develop their career”.

Mr Lewis added: “We know that economic inactivity due to long-term sickness is something the Government is finally taking seriously, and action is well overdue.”

Kim Chaplain, of the Centre for Ageing Better, a charity, said many of the retirees highlighted by the data were “currently stuck within, or outside, of an employment support system that does not work for them.”

She added: “Employers can play their part too by ensuring that they are offering workers the flexible work opportunities and the occupational health support that would give employees the opportunity to try and manage any health issues they might have within employment.”

Reports suggest the Government is considering a “carrot on a stick” approach of tax incentives to persuade more over-50s back into the workforce.

Retirement was the second most commonly cited reason for dropping out of the workforce among the 50-64 age bracket, with 1.1m people giving this explanation. However, economists are sceptical about how many of this group can be tempted back into jobs.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The department is thoroughly reviewing workforce participation to understand what action should be taken on increased economic inactivity.

“We’re also investing an extra £22m in employment support for people aged 50 and over, expanding our Jobcentre Mid-Life MOT service and providing personalised support through our Older Worker Champions. Additionally, we are looking at plans to improve support for disabled people and people with health conditions.”