COVID’s lost generation
People over 50 who lose their jobs are more likely to suffer long-term joblessness than any other age group, according to a new report published by the Department of Work and Pensions that seeks to understand trends in the economic labour market status of individuals approaching State Pension age. The statistics reveal the full adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on older individuals in the labour market and serves to underline the differential consequences of the ongoing economic turmoil
The severe and long-term economic consequences arising from the coronavirus labour market crisis on older workers
Since the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, it has been illegal to discriminate against someone based on age. The result has been a steady increase in employment rates over the past two decades, and a similar steady rise in the average age of labour market exit . Before the pandemic, nearly a third of the UK workforce (a record 10.7 million people) were aged over 50, and in March 2020, at least 80% of UK employment growth was estimated to come from this older demographic, the greatest increase being in the 60 to 64-year age bracket, both among women and men. These upward trends bring a range of economic and social benefits – to individuals, businesses and society as a whole – as diversifying workforces drive innovation and fiscal success, and improve life chances and social mobility. And then the pandemic hits...
The impact of the first lockdown on the UK workplace was immediate and severe. By the end of June 2020, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) Official Statistics  showed that 9.4 million jobs had been furloughed through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS), representing 31% of all eligible employments. Of these, 2.2 million were 50 to 64-year olds. A further 0.5 million 50 to 64-year olds made claims to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) – approximately 19% of all claims made; and analysis has shown that 50 to 64-year olds made up 42% of all those working from home . Further data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicate that people aged 55 to 64 are more likely to be temporarily away from work than all other ‘working age’ age bands, with the exception of those aged 16–24 .
While younger workers have undoubtably been hit hard, in terms of percentage increase in unemployment, the age group most affected by the pandemic are those aged 50 or over, with unemployment in older people increasing by a third in the past year. Analysis has shown furloughed 55–64s were the least likely to be fully back at work, raising concerns of a ‘second wave’ of job losses when the furlough scheme comes to an end. Women in particular have been badly impacted, as those over 50 are considerably more likely to be in part-time employment compared to men of the same age and be employed in the ‘shutdown sectors’ that have suffered most as a result of the lockdown . The sharp drop in part-time employment has also impacted older black and minority ethnic workers, who are also more likely to have been in insecure work, with fewer employment rights .
People over 50 who lose their jobs are significantly more likely to suffer long-term joblessness, and more than twice as likely as other age groups to be unemployed for at least two years. Older workers face distinctive and significant challenges on attempting to re-enter the workforce and are more likely to struggle with finding work, securing re-employment, or finding a job on a similar wage to their previous earnings. The immediate employment and skills response to the pandemic has focused on younger workers, who are also more likely to benefit from existing support programmes designed to reduce long-term unemployment . Digital exclusion, particularly in rural areas, and lack of digital literacy can also hamper an older person’s ability to work from home, job hunt, re-train, or fill in skills gaps that will allow successful transition to new sectors. An unwillingness by older people to take part in learning and development, compared to both mid-career and younger workers, is also a concern . Over 50s with a health condition or disability that limits the amount or type of work they can do are some of those at greatest risk of long-term joblessness , and for the one in five over 50s acting as informal carers , the essential requirement of flexible working may limit opportunities. Sudden job loss has also been shown to take a significant toll on the mental health of older workers, and lack of confidence is often a major challenge to overcome. Stereotypes around older workers and fears concerning employer perceptions have also been shown to effect this . Being unexpectedly out of work, or on lower wages, or forced into involuntary retirement, can have obvious negative implications for retirement resources, with two out of five older workers expressing concerns about their finances and savings , adding to the drastic impact of the pandemic on older people’s health and morale . The combined effect of these factors is risking a lost generation of unemployed over-50s forced into an early retirement they neither want nor can afford.
A year on from the start of the coronavirus pandemic and we are reminded that redundancy remains a particularly age-related issue. In the year that the State Pension Age reaches 66 – with further increases in the pipeline – it is crucial that the UK Government’s post-COVID response works for older people as well as the young. There is a pressing need to understand the specific challenges preventing over 50s from returning to the workplace, and for an immediate programme to help older workers gain employment. A broad set of long-term measures will also be needed to extend working lives without further widening inequalities. The following key recommendations have been laid out by Trade Union Congress (TUC) :
- More support to help workers who need or choose to work later in life, to help them identify and get access to the training or resources they need.
- Better rights to work flexibly.
- Reform to the social security system so that it provides an adequate safety net for workers of all ages.
- Increased flexibility around how retirement age benefits are accessed.
- Shelving planned increases to the state pension age beyond the current level of 66 and setting up a cross-party commission to establish a new consensus on the state pension age that considers trends in longevity and health inequalities across the population.
 Economic labour market status of individuals aged 50 and over, trends over time: September 2020. Department of Work and Pensions.
 Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics: July 2020. HM Revenue & Customs.
 Coronavirus and its impact on the Labour Force Survey (2020), Office for National Statistics.
 A mid-life employment crisis: How COVID-19 will affect the job prospects of older workers (2020). The Centre for Better Ageing.
 Jobs and Recovery Monitor - Issue #3: BME workers (2021) Trade Union Congress.
 Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2019. Learning and Work Institute (2020d).
 The coronavirus pandemic and older workers (2020). Institute of Fiscal Studies.
 Dixley, A., Boughey, R. & Herrington, A. (2019). Informal Carers and Employment: Summary Report of a Systematic Review.
 Extending working lives: How to support older workers (2021). Trade Union Congress.