Number of over-50s on zero-hours contracts surges, official figures show

Experts say increase is down to the financial and lifestyle benefits offered by this way of working, but warn of risks to pensions and sick pay eligibility

The number of workers over the age of 50 on a zero-hours contract has increased by 98,000 in five years, according to official data.

An analysis of figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) by Rest Less showed a 52 per cent rise in over-50s working on zero-hours contracts between 2014 and 2019. The most dramatic increase was among over-65s, with a 75 per cent rise among this age group during this period.

Gerwyn Davies, senior labour market adviser at the CIPD, said that zero-hours workers remained a very small proportion of the workforce, and that most workers were “happy with these arrangements because of the flexibility it offered them”.

“Being able to turn down shifts… suits younger and older workers especially, and it's one of the reasons why they are the biggest users of zero-hours contracts,” Davies said, adding awareness of these contracts had “increased sharply” between 2014 and 2019.

Davies added for over-65s there was an element of topping up pensions and income, but there were also “non-financial reasons” and incentives. “[Older workers] may want to remain part of the labour market for their wellbeing, and to provide a contribution. You can see why this kind of work appeals to that particular cohort,” he said. 

However, Dr Emily Andrews, senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, warned that while flexible working options were “preferable” for older workers who wanted a better work-life balance, there was a risk to their pensions.

“People on zero-hours contracts may not be paying into a pension if they are under the earnings threshold, and will be at risk if they are financially reliant on precarious employment,” she said.

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“As more of us remain in the workforce in our 50s, 60s and beyond, it’s crucial we have access to the type of work that is right for us,” Andrews added.

Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, said zero-hours contracts were helpful in providing greater flexibility, but warned they also potentially came at a cost. “With no guaranteed earnings, if used inappropriately they can create significant pressure for employees to take any hours offered, whatever the conditions,” he said.

Lewis added the rising number of over-50s on zero-hours contracts was a “cause for concern” given the current coronavirus outbreak, because these workers might miss out on statutory sick pay (SSP).

If zero-hours workers have earned on average at least £118 per week in the past eight weeks, they are entitled to SSP. However, if the worker relies on multiple jobs to reach this wage threshold, they may not be entitled to SSP, and instead might have to utilise measures proposed in this week’s 2020 budget (12 March). These included a new type of Employment and Support Allowance specifically for those affected by coronavirus, and changes to reduce the minimum income floor for Universal Credit. 

According to the CIPD’s 2019 Megatrends report, workers in the UK were just as secure in their jobs as they were 20 years ago, and found 2.7 per cent of UK employees were on zero-hours contracts.

Previous figures also found 81 per cent of UK workers were satisfied with the number of hours they worked and did not consider themselves underemployed, suggesting concerns over insecure work were “overblown”.

The latest ONS figures also found zero-hours contracts were increasingly prevalent among 16-24 year olds: the number of these contracts in this age group increased by 48 per cent between 2014 and 2019 to almost 350,000, representing the highest number of workers on such contracts of any age range.