Labour market data points to older worker 'exodus' as vacancies continue to rise

New Office for National Statistics figures show 250k more over-50s are economically inactive compared to before the pandemic

Tens of thousands of workers over the age of 50 have left the workplace since the start of the pandemic, official figures have shown, at a time when vacancies are continuing to increase.

The latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that those aged 50 and over saw the largest decrease in economic activity of any age group since the pandemic started.

In January 2022, there were nearly 280,000 more 50-to-64-year-olds who were economically inactive – meaning they were not in work and not looking for work – compared to before the pandemic in January 2020, the data showed.

And a separate piece of ONS research, released yesterday (14 March), which looked specifically at over-50s, found that the number of people in this age group who moved into economic inactivity was 87,000 higher in the three months to June 2021 than the same period in 2019, with men and those in professional occupations largely driving this shift.

Additionally, less than a fifth (18 per cent) of those aged 50 to 70 who left work or lost their job since the start of the pandemic have since returned to work, the research found.

At the same time, today’s figures showed that the number of vacancies rose to another new record of 1,318,000 in the three months to February this year, up by more than 100,000 on the previous quarter, while unemployment fell to 3.9 per cent in the three months to January, down 0.2 percentage points on the quarter.

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Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, said the figures did not come as a surprise. “At Rest Less we've been talking about the brewing crisis and mass exodus [of older workers] for a couple of years, pretty much since the start of the pandemic, and it's felt like it's been falling on deaf ears,” he said.

It was also unsurprising that qualified men in particular were disproportionately leaving the labour market, he said, given that this demographic was more likely to be higher earners and therefore in a position where they could choose to stop working.

“[The pandemic] forced people to reappraise what's important to them in their life and career, and for many of us reaffirmed the fact that life can at times be all too short. And so you're definitely seeing almost a brain drain of highly qualified individuals leaving the workforce,” said Lewis.

But, he added, workers over the age of 50 were “one of the most diverse cohorts of society”, given that differences in health and wealth tend to increase over time, which could lead to “hugely different outlooks on working into midlife and later life”.

“I think one thing that is universally clear, is that more support and flexibility would encourage more people to either not leave the workforce or to come back into the workforce,” said Lewis.

This was echoed by Emily Andrews, deputy director of evidence at the Centre for Ageing Better, who noted that it was not just older workers who were higher skilled leaving the labour market. “People with fewer qualifications, mostly in lower-paid roles, are also leaving the labour force in greater numbers than pre-pandemic,” she said.

The ONS found that more than one in four (27 per cent) people in their 50s who were no longer in work were relying on support from their families, with women far more likely than men to be in this position.

However, there was plenty employers could be doing to support older workers when it comes to both recruitment and retention, said Andrews. “Flexible working – and this means actually flexible, not simply splitting time between office and home-based working – is a must,” she said.

“For employers looking to bring more older workers into their teams, think about your organisation through the eyes of a prospective older worker; consider the working environment; and ensure your application process is free from age bias,” Andrews said.