Number of unemployed older workers increased by a third during lockdown, data suggests

Experts warn of a long-term unemployment ‘disaster’ for over-50s and call on businesses to tackle ‘systemic ageism’ in the workplace

The number of unemployed people aged over 50 in the UK has increased by a third in the past year, according to analysis of official figures. 

There were 371,000 unemployed older people in July to September 2020, a 33 per cent rise from the 280,000 unemployed over-50s during the same period last year. 

The data, provided in the latest Labour Market Statistics issued by the Office for National Statistics and analysed by job site Rest Less, suggested this was the biggest percentage increase of all age groups and significantly more than the national average increase of 24 per cent.

While acknowledging the impact coronavirus was having on young people, Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, said the UK was facing a “less well-documented” long-term unemployment “disaster” among older workers. 

“In the year that the state pension age moves to 66 and universal credit claims among the over-50s have surged to more than 600,000, more needs to be done to tackle systemic ageism in the workplace to help these talented, life-rich workers find meaningful employment,” Lewis said. 

He argued that older workers had a vast resource of work and life experience that was of value to employers. “Not only do they have decades of work experience under their belts, but they also bring an important set of life skills to the table as well as attributes such as loyalty, resilience, empathy and an ability to think laterally,” Lewis said.

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Though older workers saw the greatest percentage increase in unemployment, the rate remained high across all age groups. The unemployment levels for people aged 18-24 increased by 104,000 – or 25 per cent – in the last year. 

For those aged 25-34, the increase was 74,000 (28 per cent) during the same period, and for those aged 35-49 the increase was 51,000 (19 per cent).

Alistair McQueen, head of savings and retirement at Aviva, said this latest data revealed the scale of the impact the pandemic has had on the employment prospects of older workers. He explained that “society is ageing”, which had already increased the number of economically inactive people later in life. But this number, he argued, has been exasperated by coronavirus. 

“This acceleration of exits from the labour market represents a massive loss of experience, just when the UK needs it the most,” McQueen said. “As we navigate today’s economic challenges, age must be no barrier to opportunity.”

Research by the Centre for Ageing Better and the Learning and Work Institute earlier this year found that about 377,000 extra older workers – one in 10 male, and eight in 10 female, workers in their 50s and 60s – face a significant risk of losing their jobs when the government’s furlough scheme is wound down.

The Centre for Ageing Better’s mid-life employment crisis report, which was released before the furlough scheme was extended into 2021, found over-50s were more likely to slip into long-term joblessness than any other age group. According to the report, just 35 per cent who lost their job returned to work ‘quickly’, with 29 per cent remaining unemployed for more than 12 months.