The 'Burgeoning Growth of Older Workers': A Reality Check in Today's Employment Figures

The labour force figures released today show a slowing down in the rate of growth in employment. On the whole, they appear to represent good news but we should look carefully.

Whilst employment among 50-64 year olds rose to another record at 7.98 million – a rise of 257,000 over the previous year in fact – Economic inactivity rose by 9,000 to 3.31 million (28.5 per cent) and is virtually unchanged over the previous year. There is not much cause for satisfaction there.The plain fact is that of the 74,000 new jobs that were created in the May to July 2014 period, nowhere near enough went to older people.

Taking things in the round, the situation does not look too bad. the total number of unemployed people fell by 468,000, and the number of people aged from 16 to 64 who were out of work but not seeking or available for work (economically inactive) fell by 31,000.

So while one could present the figures with a positive gloss, emphasising the “record numbers” of older people in work, we shouldn’t forget that increasing numbers of people who are in jobs are simply passing their fiftieth birthdays thereby swelling the ranks of the 50 to 64 year olds in work.

The employment rate for people in the 50 to 64 age range rose by a mere 0.1 per cent to 68.7 per cent compared with the previous period. This is hardly a great achievement by the Government or employers. It sounds Jeremiah-ish I know, but record employment among the 50-64 age range is still not enough for the Government to crow about.

Looking at employment of people over the age of 65, the number of people in work rose by 4,000 to 1.10 million. Once again, women were the main contributors to this increase. In fact, there were 21,000 fewer men in this age range employed in May to July compared with 25,000 More women and the employment rate for people at 65 plus was unchanged at 0.1 per cent, although admittedly this is slightly higher than a year previously (an increase in 0.7 per cent over the year in fact).

And don’t let’s forget that a goodly number of this increase/decrease in employment for the 65 plus, is in fact made up of people entering into self-employment, partly (though not entirely) because of the resistance of conventional employers to hiring older job seekers. So you could say that even the increase in the numbers employed in the 65 plus age group, reveals the continuing discrimination encountered in the labour market, if we drill down a bit and look at the nature of the increase.

Of the others, again we should remember the age cohort effect – more women who are becoming 65 are deciding to carry on working. (Don’t forget we used to make them retire at 65 or earlier not so long ago.) So this increase should not be imagined as older women flooding back to work, but simply as them hanging on to what they already have for a bit longer.

Long term unemployment among older people has been a problem. It is encouraging to see that 50 plus long-term unemployment (12 months and over) fell by 8,000 overall (to 169,000). Although it was up +2,000 for older men to 115,000. So yet again, it is a mixture of good news and bad news, according to the view point (and ages) of the beholder.

Last week I had the experience of discussing the economic potential of older people with representatives of Local Enterprise Partnerships.  There was much interest in the practical measures that could be taken to actively boost employment of older people, or help them to remain in work if they wished to do so.

Unfortunately, a lack of measures targeted towards older job seekers on one hand and a lack of specific incentives or supports for the 50 plus in the  welfare to work agencies coupled with poor “age management” awareness by employers,  means that older workers as a group continue punching below their economic weight.

It seems obvious really, but at a time when employers in many sectors are looking with concern at skills and talent recruitment and local economies are in need of all the help they can get to  innovate for smart, sustainable economic growth, older workers offer serious potential which neither employers nor LEPs should ignore.