Working longer – the reality ‘behind the headlines’

Senior businessman in office working on laptop

By Heather Cameron

With no shortage of headlines highlighting the record employment rate in the UK, and the increasing number of older workers widely reported, it may seem that the outlook for the ageing workforce is a rosy one. But do these headlines hide the reality?

Recent analysis from Age UK argues that the headline employment rate doesn’t tell the whole story about working longer, “making it an insufficient – and even misleading – tool for public policy decision-making”.

The statistics

The most recent official figures show that the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who are in work) is the joint highest since comparable records began in 1971, at 74.8%, while the unemployment rate is the joint lowest since 1975.

Data also shows that the employment rate for people aged 65 and over has indeed increased since the 2008 recession. It is currently at 10.4%, up from 7.3% in 2008.

Age UK has also recognised the increase in employment rates for older people, noting that, in fact, the older the age group, the greater the increase in employment. However, the average number of hours worked has declined since the recession, indicating a more complex and perhaps less reassuring situation than the one portrayed in the media.

The biggest drop was for 50-54 year old men, whose average hours declined by 29%. For men aged 60-64, the average number of hours declined by 8 hours (over 22%), while women aged 50-54 experienced a fall of 18%.

The only age group not to see a decline was women aged 60-64, which is likely to be as a result of the raising of the State Pension age.

Choice or necessity?

The change in the State Pension age was justified on the grounds that it gave people more choice and more scope to continue working if they wished to.

A recent CIPD survey found that the most common reason for wanting to work past 65 is that employees believe it will help keep them mentally fit, followed by wanting to be able to earn a sufficient income to continue to do the things they enjoy.

As Age UK suggests, it may be that the reduction in working hours is a good sign if it is due to older workers choosing to wind down their hours, maybe to enable them to juggle other responsibilities such as caring for their grandchildren, while still earning a wage.

However, the research suggests it may be less through choice and more as a result of the changing labour market such as increasing underemployment (working less hours than they would choose to) or increasing insecure working practices driven by the rise in self-employment and the ‘gig economy’.

As it is likely working fewer hours will mean less income, this could be a cause for concern since it will be more difficult for older workers to maintain their standard of living until they meet the State Pension age and for them to save enough for retirement.

Another issue highlighted by the CIPD, is that most employees don’t believe their organisations are prepared to meet the needs of the over 65s, suggesting that there is a need for employers to also review their practices in terms of managing older workers.

Final thoughts

It is clear that while, for some, choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age will be a lifestyle choice, for many it will be a necessity. Any substantial reduction in working hours for these older workers could consequently pose a real issue.

It would therefore make sense for policy makers to heed the warning from Age UK not to rely on the headline rate of employment for older workers, and rather look beyond it to the reality of many struggling to get and keep the secure, well paid jobs they want and need.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in reading our previous post on the pros and cons of the gig economy.

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