How to fix the participation crisis

The Great Retirement was a result of the pandemic, which saw a large exodus from the labour force of people between 50 and 64 years old. While some have recently returned to work – perhaps feeling the squeeze of the cost of living crisis – the Most recent labour market dataIt is evident that there are still 92,000 people aged 50-64 are now working less than they were at the outbreak of the pandemic. The data continue to paint a troubling picture of economic inactivity amongst the age group, reaching its highest level since 2012.

This is a dramatic reversal from pre-pandemic trend, which had seen steady increases of the number of over 50s working for the past decade and beyond. The Learning and Work Institute estimates that there are currently a million unemployed people in the UK.

This is a crisis. It is even more apparent when you compare the UK’s experience with other countries. The UK saw a small decline in employment during the first phase, which was compared with other G7 countries. However, most countries have recovered and have higher employment rates than before the pandemic. The UK, however, has not been able to pull off this feat and now boasts unhappily of its failure. largest employment rate drop in the G7. Critically, this is not a problem of unemployment – of an increase in over 50s jobseekers unable to find work. Despite a decrease in job openings in the last month, UK job vacancies remain at an all-time high. Rather it is a crisis of participation – of people not working, but not looking for work either.

So what’s the problem? It is possible that a small percentage of people, especially those over 50, have made a positive decision to retire early, perhaps after reassessing their priorities and what they want out of life in the wake of the pandemic. It’s plausible that some of the slight rise in employment we have seen in the very latest employment statistics is a result of some over 50s returning to the workforce having reassessed whether or not they could in fact afford to retire early given the current and likely future cost of living. Long-term illness is a significant factor in the changes we are seeing. About 274,000 more 16-64-year-olds report that they are not actively seeking work because of long-term illness than they were at the start the pandemic. 


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Information on everything, from routine operation waiting list to accessing GP appointment points to an NHS under immense strain. And recent research from University College LondonResearch has shown that over one third of British adults have at least two chronic conditions by the age of 40. These include back problems, mental health problems and high blood pressure.

Meeting the needs of the millions of people with chronic physical and mental health conditions both in and out of work is going to be immensely difficult, but it couldn’t be more important, not just to our national health and wellbeing, but also to our economy. This includes a focus on primary, community and occupational care.

We need to change the way we provide support for employment. Current labour market policies are heavily focused on unemployment. The Restart programme focuses on long-term unemployment benefit claimants. Employers who hire young people at high risk of long-term unemployment can use the Kickstart program to receive wage support. Even the welcome announcement of investment in employment support for people over 50 is focussed principally on Job Centres – places that the current swathe of people no longer working may have never visited or never intend to visit.

While these are all worthy initiatives in themselves, they aren’t going to solve the participation crisis. We must change our approach. We need to find better ways of engaging and supporting people to get back to work that works for their needs.

One part of the solution could be found in the work currently being done in Greater Manchester. The Combined Authority has teamed up with the charity Centre for Ageing Better (DWP) to design better approaches for local people over 50. They have already developed two interventions that provide personalised support in ways people like and value. One is a digital platform that allows people to identify their existing skills and develop career goals. It also links them to local employment sectors growing and recruiting. The other approach is completely different and focuses on removing barriers that prevent small, more holistic and innovative local providers from securing support contracts.

These approaches share one thing in common: a desire to meet people at their level and provide support and advice that is tailored to them. This will be crucial to support not only active job seekers but also people who have never accessed DWP. These ideas will be more important in the coming months and years. Local roadshows that bring in CV writing clinics and employability professionals outside of the job centre to other locations. Local industries will see more targeted returner campaigns. Good quality, evidence-based careers guidance for all ages. Employers are actively looking to fill vacancies with people over 50.

Few employers are as educated as this. According to a recent poll from the Centre for Ageing BetterOnly 1 out of 6 employers are likely to adopt policies that allow for age-inclusion at work in the next 12 month. Over a third of older workers believe that their age would be a disadvantage in obtaining a new job. At the Phoenix Group, we’re taking part in a trial looking at how to eliminate age bias from the recruitment process. 

But bringing people over 50 back to work isn’t just about recruitment. It’s also about working conditions. When you have the right conditions, it’s a win-win situation. Office of National Statistics explored with economically inactive people over 50 what would encourage them back workThey ranked flexibility and support for caring responsibilities as the most important things they would seek. Employers may be reluctant to offer flexible work. work from Timewise and the Institute for Employment StudiesIt has proven that it can return on investment in sectors such as construction, teaching, or the NHS by reducing sickness absences and improving retention in just a few short years. At the moment Employees must have been employed for 26 consecutive weeks before they can request flexible work. We must make this a day one rights, as promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

We need to provide more support for those who have caring responsibilities. The 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to five days of unpaid statutory carers leave for all workers. However this has not yet been legislated. Recognizing the reality that two-parent working families exist, and acknowledging the fact that people need support and time to care for children, partners for parents, is crucial for encouraging more people back into work, especially women, who often share the responsibility for unpaid family caregivers. When Beveridge set out his blueprint for what would become our welfare state, he assumed ‘during marriage most women will not be gainfully employed’, leaving them free to raise children and care for elderly and sick relatives and neighbours. It is the huge, outdated 20ThOur attempts to create a welfare system and decent employment conditions in 21st Century America are hampered by a century-old cultural assumption.st century. 

Last but not least, we need a new way of thinking about adult learning and skills.

We need a system that supports people throughout their lives to learn, change careers and upskill. However, our current skills and learning programs are not targeted at those in their mid-life. There’s a huge potential untapped market for the education and training providers who see the opportunity to target and tailor courses to help those mid-career and older. You can find out more about our services here. recent poll we conducted, 79% of people agreed that offering formal training beyond the basic functions of a job has a positive effect on people’s performance at work, and 81% agreed that getting formal training can greatly increase the chances of finding a job for those who are unemployed or at risk of redundancy. 61% of workers said they had not been offered formal training within the last 12 month. In a time where investment in skills is crucial to our economic growth, trends in employer training are alarmingly declining.

None of these ideas can be implemented immediately. None of these ideas will give the new Prime minister a chance to wear a hard hat in front of a grand new infrastructure building. They are the messy work required to re-calibrat relationships and expectations. Between people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness and the health system. Employers and employees. Between people who don’t see how they can earn money again and services that can really help them. They are vital to fixing our participation crisis, and growing our economy.